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Spring Training Dish: Phillies Camp
by Chris Kline
Editor's note: Assistant editor Chris Kline is spending three weeks covering spring training in Florida's Grapefruit League. Today's stop: Phillies camp.
CLEARWATER, Fla.--The Phillies might not have the deepest system around, but they are deepest where most organizations fall short--lefthanded pitching.
A lot of that has to go with netting lefthanders Gio Gonzalez and Daniel Haigwood from the White Sox in the Jim Thome deal over the winter, and an equal amount falls on the shoulders of a healthy Cole Hamels--but the Phils have reasons to be excited about their lefthanded depth.
As for the rest of the system, it has been depleted over the years through various trades and forfeiting draft picks as compensation for free agent signs. But Mike Arbuckle, the team's assistant general manager for scouting and player development, is back on the amateur beat for the scouting department for his most extensive tour of duty in at least three years. With a first-rounder slated for June as compensation for losing Billy Wagner, Arbuckle is adamant about reloading through the draft and being aggressive on the international market.
Arbuckle and another in-house candidate, Ruben Amaro Jr., were passed over when the Phillies hired a new general manager after last season, as they went outside the organization to bring in Pat Gillick. Arbuckle says there is no animosity from either as the Phillies focus on restocking the system.
"I've incredibly happy to be back out on the amateur side of things more than I have over the last couple years," Arbuckle said. "And I've learned more from Pat Gillick in the last few months than I think I ever have in a long time in this game. And once you stop learning, you're done."
We sat down with Arbuckle to talk about where the system is now and where it's headed, the nice crop of lefthanders already in tow, and righthander Scott Mathieson--who's advanced by leaps and bounds in what can only be termed as a well-traveled offseason.
Baseball America: The system really doesn't look too great on paper, but there are obvious reasons for at least part of that. How do you see the depth in the organization overall?
Mike Arbuckle: I feel we're starting to restock. We had thinned the system out over the last couple years and not having some high picks for about three years. So things were thinner than we would prefer, but I think we're starting to get better. We have a decent balance of position players and pitching. We've got some pretty good arms that we like, but now we're starting to get the (Jason) Jaramillos and the (Mike) Costanzos and Wellinson Baez, (Brad) Harman--some position guys we like as well. So I think we're starting to get back to some balance between the two. We're not where we need to be yet depth-wise, but I think we're headed in the right direction. And having an extra pick in the draft this year will be nice. We want to continue to be aggressive in signing players and I think we're going to start reloading.
BA: And even so, you do have a nice group of lefthanded pitching when most other clubs are always salivating for it . . .
MA: Absolutely--and you can never have enough and everyone always says that because it's true. We've got some good lefthanded arms now starting with Cole Hamels, who's had a real positive spring. He's had no issues physically, so we're optimistic that he's on a good track. If we get him pitching like we know he's capable of doing, throw Gio (Gonzalez) into the mix, (Daniel) Haigwood--who I think is a solid prospect--then you get down to guys like (J.A.) Happ and (Matt) Maloney. We've got some lefthanders in the system that we feel like have a chance to pitch. Even kids like (Justin) Blaine and some of those guys that we think have a chance to be big leaguers.
BA: The Double-A rotation in Reading looks especially good, especially if you throw Hamels in the mix, at least to start. Where does Hamels fit in right now?
MA: We're still debating it, to be honest. We'd thought about him starting there and then the more we've talked about it because of weather and bus trips we've had some talk about starting him here in Clearwater. So I would view it as fairly a short-range thing here and very well could be in Reading or above that if he keeps throwing like I think he's going to. That Double-A staff is going to be a good one with Scott Mathieson, Gio, Haigwood's still between there and (Triple-A) Scranton. So we could end up with a good staff to extremely good staff in Reading from a prospect standpoint.
BA: Scott Mathieson must have earned quite a few frequent-flier miles this offseason with the Arizona Fall League, the Olympic qualifier and then the World Baseball Classic. What have you seen in him this spring and how much does pitching against all that new and different competition affect his confidence level?
MA: I think it's really helped him confidence-wise and it's helped him mature as a person. Because obviously at the lower levels they're in somewhat of a protected environment and now having pitched for Team Canada and Arizona against better competition, it's really helped him. And the stuff is certainly quality. Him scrapping the curveball and getting the slider in his arsenal has been huge. I was just talking to (scouting director) Marti Wolever and he said Mathieson threw a couple sliders yesterday that were just nasty. He's on a real positive track. He'll start out in Reading. To me, the key for him is commanding the fastball a little better than he has and then continuing to develop the secondary pitches. When those two elements are where they need to be, he's a big league pitcher.
BA: Is there any are of emphasis you're working on with position players this spring?
MA: One thing we're trying to do is we want our speed guys to do a better job of reading pitchers, getting leads and learning the finer points of stealing bases. We feel like our speed guys want to be too reliant on pure speed, so we've tried to really focus on helping the (Chris) Robersons, the (Greg) Golsons, the (Michael) Bourns--all those kids--with early work sessions on basestealing to try to enhance their confidence level in getting better and smarter leads, reading pitchers; those kinds of things.
BA: Those are all some intriguing outfielders . . .
MA: Well, we feel real good about our center field situation now. Roberson's played extremely well (in big league camp), so well that he's still in the mix as a fifth outfielder. Now the question becomes is it more valuable for him to be a fifth outfielder there or play every day in Scranton. So we're going to have to sort all that out, but has really opened some eyes in big league camp.
Michael Bourn is on a real positive track and I think he's right on course. I haven't seen much of Golson yet this spring, but the reports have been positive. Those guys are all players we feel have a chance to be big league center fielders. We're pretty deep in that area.
BA: Another outfielder who came on real strong last season is Shane Victorino, and his background is also intriguing--being Rule 5'd twice and finally breaking out. What are his chances of earning a spot on the big league club?
MA: He really took a step forward. I think he has a very good chance of making the club. The problem you run into a lot of times when you Rule 5 guys at an earlier age, the last thing usually to come is the bat and that was the situation with him. He can go get it in the outfield, he can run the bases, but the bat was really the last thing he was prepared to utilize at the big league level. And with the progress he made with the bat in Triple-A last year, that's what separated him from where he had been in previous years. He and Roberson are similar in a way in that they are both athlete-speed guys that were kind of late-bloomers with the bat. They're similar in that regard.
BA: We mentioned the WBC earlier and Carlos Ruiz also played in the tournament for Panama. Similar confidence-booster?
MA: I think it's good because those kids get to play in a different environment for their country and they get that little bit of extra pressure that they have to learn to handle. It's definitely a positive for those kids to have that kind of experience. He had a great year for us in Scranton last year, but the key with him is we've got to keep him on the field all year. He's had little nagging injuries, gotten taken out at the plate a couple times on collisions, he's had concussions and what have you. If we can keep him on the field on a regular basis, he's very close to being a major league catcher. He can throw; he's a good receiver; he's a contact hitter, and he's got the energy you want in a catcher. There are a lot of things there that you like.
BA: Last question--this organization probably has more prospects hailing from Australia than any other. Being active on the international market is one thing, but being a player in Australia has to be somewhat different. Why focus so much attention on Australia?
MA: We've been very active there in the last number of years. We brought on board Kevin Hooker, who played in our system and is from Australia to scout that area and Marti is a big believer that it's kind of an untapped area. So we decided to jump in and get more active and we feel pretty good about what we've gotten. Obviously Harman, a big-bodied righthander in Mark Kelly, a catcher in Joel Naughton--who might have shown as much improvement from the first day of spring training until the end of the summer last year as anyone in the organization--and (righthander) Scott Mitchinson. Mitchinson came out of camp last year with a tender arm and kind of got behind and never caught up. We're hoping he'll be fully healthy and get to see the real guy this year.
• Lefthander Gio Gonzalez has looked impressive this spring. It just took him a while to buy into the fact that he really was a Phillie. When the White Sox dealt Aaron Rowand, Gonzalez and Daniel Haigwood to Philadelphia for Jim Thome, Gonzalez received a call from Chicago farm director David Wilder, who broke the news. But Gonzalez didn't flinch. He thought it was a practical joke. "It's the organization you grew up with, so you honestly think to yourself, 'Why in the hell would they trade me?' " Gonzalez said. But after the two hung up the phone, the Phillies called him five minutes later with a welcoming call.
"I told them they'd really gone a long way to plan this joke on me and they could stop whenever they wanted. I just thought the White Sox went a long way to bust my chops with this crank call. When they told me I was part of the Thome deal, I was completely speechless."
• Righthander Scott Mathieson has pitched just about everywhere over the last year, and combined with that experience and his hard-biting, 86 mph slider, the Phillies expect big things out of the 22-year-old this season. But he still wishes he'd pitched better during his one-inning stint against Team USA in the World Baseball Classic--especially against Chase Utley when Canadian centerfielder Adam Stern made a game-saving catch with runners on base to preserve Canada's lead heading into the ninth.
"I'm not going to lie--I was definitely nervous out there, but I could have done a lot better than I did," Mathieson said. "The weirdest thing was as soon as Utley came up, I was like, 'Oh, I've faced this guy before--he's nothing.' I faced him over here a couple times and I wasn't worried at all and then he just crushed that one ball and Stern bailed me out big time."
Mathieson struck out eight over five innings on Tuesday in the Double-A game against the Devil Rays, but was back out on the field at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday working on pitcher's fielding practice. "I have a tendency to throw a little too hard to the bases sometimes, so we were just trying to work on easing it over there a little bit," Mathieson said. "I just came out to see if I could do some more work."
• One name to watch in the organization is righthander Julio De La Cruz. The 25-year-old Dominican is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and the Phillies expect to move him quickly this season, probably starting him out at high Class A Clearwater. De La Cruz tops out at 95 mph with his fastball, commands it well and backs it up with a hard slider. "We're going to try to fast-track him because he's essentially missed two years," Arbuckle said. "He's an older kid, but all of the sudden what we initially saw looks like it's back with command. We may start him to get him innings, but he probably profiles as a reliever."
• Another arm to be on the lookout for is righthander Edgar Garcia. Garcia is still working on his secondary pitches, but sits in the 92-95 mph range with his four-seam fastball. He will pitch the entire season at 18 years old and is coming off a Rookie-level Gulf Coast League season when he went 4-4, 3.56 in 56 innings.