We jump out of order to go to Lehigh Valley before we wrap our series up with AA Reading. No Phillies affiliate has been as hard hit by the talent glut and subsequent rebuild as the IronPigs. They have been lucky the past few years to get a single good prospect (much like having Maikel Franco in 2014). The 2015 season was more of the same, with a few more players coming through but with everyone passing through one after the other. The prospects were augmented with a solid group of role players, some of which got their shot in the big leagues. Fans of IronPigs can rejoice though, as it looks like 2016 might bring them the most talented opening day AAA roster in baseball.
Today we have Kram of NoiseNation, someone who I have interacted with all the way back to my time in the Phuture Phillies comments. Kram is one of the vocal advocates of the IronPigs on Twitter and the internet and probably as seen more games than anyone not paid to watch the games.
Before we get started, introduce yourself and where people can read what you write.
At LVNoiseNation.com we write about Lehigh Valley professional sports, including the IronPigs since 2009, the AHL Phantoms hockey team, the arena-football SteelHawks, and now the USL Soccer Bethlehem Steel FC. I post under the pen-name “Kram” for a column named “Kram’s Korner” and I’m currently the chief correspondent for IronPigs Baseball and Phantoms Hockey. You can follow on Twitter at @Kram209 for me personally, @NoiseNation for the blog feed, and @CherylPursell for the photography and videography. While we do often have “media” access, we are also season ticket holders and usually prefer a more “by the fan, for the fan” approach, coming more from the stands than from the press box.
Over the past few seasons it would be kind to call AAA barren of impact talent. This year the Pigs saw Aaron Nola, Maikel Franco, Aaron Altherr, Jerad Eickhoff, and others. Let’s start with Franco, what kind of growth did he see early in the year that lead to his MLB success?
For Maikel earlier this season, the game seemed to slow down for him—on and off the field. He could often be seen pumping up his teammates before the game and looked to be accepting a bit of a leadership role on the team, having spent much of last season here. At the plate, he began to accept that just because he could hit a pitch, doesn’t mean he should. He began putting himself in situations to not only get pitches to hit, but pitches to hit hard. That was not something we saw from him in 2014. His fielding at third continued to be above average, for what we’re accustomed to in AAA ball.
Of the other group (Altherr, Nola, Eickhoff) what things did you see them do for Lehigh Valley that has allowed their success to carry over?
Eickhoff only really had one home start for us—and it happened to be one of the only four games I missed this past season. I will say that on observation from a distance, it seems that his development continued past the few games with Lehigh Valley—he continued to get better after joining the big club. Nola was always going to be good, and successful. I had seen him in Reading a couple times, and didn’t expect anything less at AAA. He had polish to add to a couple of his pitches, and it was probably good for his long-term success to have had the time in AA and AAA this season. Altherr was a pleasant surprise. I knew he was ready for AAA, but didn’t know how he’d respond to the challenge of the junk-ball pitchers at this level. Like the 2015 version of Franco, he showed maturity and patience and put himself in a position to hit. He also did an outstanding job in the outfield. I did not conduct the interviews, but in interviews I observed, he really seems to take pride in the defensive portion of his game.
Outside the young prospects, AAA is full of journeymen trying to make the show one last time. It will be hard for any of them to stick in this org among the prospects, but who do you think could catch on for another org?
Brian Bogusevic hit above his career MLB average in his time with the Phillies this fall. He’ll certainly get an MLB camp invite from someone in the Spring and could earn a spot. He performed very well for the IronPigs all season, and played with an intensity just this side of Tyson Gillies—which was hard for some of the more casual fans to take. He was a great guy, though, when I had a chance to interview him and he played hard every single night. Jordan Danks was a guy we knew—because he would just kill us as a visiting player (Charlotte). His numbers disappointed this season, but he could certainly find a home as another outfielder who can play all three positions and hit for some power when things are going better.
Chase d’Arnaud may have a shot; he has some positional flexibility but his fielding at SS was sub-par this season; he was forced there somewhat by the injury to Edgar Duran. Ditto Tyler Pastornicky.
Fan favorite and super-utility Tyler Henson may have to try a different organization to achieve his ultimate goal of a call to the Show—although we’d love to have him back. The Phillies asked him to cut down on the strikeouts, which he did, but lost something in the power department—and batting average–and always seemed to be in a mini-slump every time an opportunity for call-up was about to present in 2015.
The IronPigs changed the dimensions of the park this year, did it make any noticable differences to game play?
I haven’t looked at the overall numbers–and statistical significance thereof—but just by attending every game, I didn’t notice a dramatic increase in home runs to left field. I can think of a couple that landed in the new seating area which moved the fence in, but nothing dramatic. If I were going to look at it, I’d also be curious to know if hits and extra-base hits to left were decreased because the left fielder was able to play a shallower position and was closer to the wall in a tighter corner. Good question, but by observation, no—no significant change.
As for the seating area itself, it’s neat to sit 20 feet directly behind–and on the same level as–the left fielder. But it’s not where I’d want to watch every game. In the game I spent out there this season, I got “shushed” by Braves outfielder Eury Perez. Never been “shushed” by a player, during a game, before!
The IronPigs should have a stacked team next year, who are you looking forward to seeing play in AAA?
As a fan I’m always the most optimistic about the IronPigs chances for playoffs and/or a championship—and I’m always disappointed. For the 2016 IronPigs, of course I’m excited, but I am tempering my expectations a bit. The talent scheduled to come through Allentown in 2016 might not be here long enough to make much of a difference—just as we only got one home start out of Jerad Eickhoff this past summer, and only a couple of Nola starts.
A media report today quoted Phillies’ manager Pete Mackanin as saying he’s in favor of bringing guys straight from AA or even A ball to the Majors if they’re ready. I’m not sure the organization which did a great job nurturing the development of guys like Franco and Nola will ultimately do that, but it is possible that we’ll “miss” a player or two.
The other thing that has me tempering my excitement is simply that I’ve already seen all of these guys play, really. Reading is not that far off, and the games did not overlap much this season, so I got to see the AA team quite a bit.
That said, the guy I look forward to coming to the park to see every day next summer (if everything works out) is Roman Quinn. There’s nothing like seeing a guy move that fast while watching a game in person—and seeing how the other team reacts in their fielding and when he’s on the base-paths. Speed is fun to watch! There’s a lot of room in centerfield at Coca Cola Park for him to run down fly balls. If Roman has to repeat AA for a bit, then JP Crawford would be the other guy for me to look forward to seeing.
Is there any other players flying under the radar that we should be paying attention to?
I have a soft spot for catchers. Gabriel Lino came here before I thought he was ready—a rarity for me as I constantly covet Reading players—and really held his own. He cooled off at the plate as the season wore on, but only turned 22 during the season. He takes real pride in calling a game and playing that position—a real passion for catching. I’m going to enjoy watching him until Alfaro and Knapp make their way up. And don’t sleep on Logan Moore either. He’s less than three years older than Lino, and bats left. He hit better at Lehigh Valley than he did at Reading. I’m hoping to have both these guys back in the Spring, and hoping they’re ready to support the big club as needed in the “third catcher” role.
Finally, not moving far from catcher, I’ve got my eye on Tommy Joseph. He should come to camp as a full-time first baseman, with full pre-season preparation and no catching worries. Could his bat jump the way Roman Quinn’s did when he moved from shortstop to center field? Probably not, but I’m looking forward to watching how it plays out.
While other affiliates have seen success, the IronPigs have not really but up the wins, yet the park always seems to be full. What has been the root of their success off the field?
It’s not so much a “perfect storm” as it is the right combinations—like making a cake or good BBQ sauce. First, the physical plant: It’s a gem of a park. Great seats, great food and drink, easy to get to and get around in. It’s just a great place to watch a game.
Second, people generates people: There’s a social aspect for the young and old. You can always walk around the concourse and meet up with someone you know—even if you only go to one game per year.
Finally, there’s the staff. The team management and staff work really hard to put together an “entertainment product” that folks will want to take in again and again regardless of the baseball. Those of us who go for the game cringe a bit at some of the between-innings shenanigans, but folks leave feeling entertained at a fair price and keep coming back. Group sales staff does a great job filling the seats with groups from local churches, clubs, businesses, and community organizations.
Photo by Cheryl Purcell