2017 Lakewood BlueClaws Season Recap

The minor league season may have wrapped up two months ago, but it is never too late to take a look around at the events of the 2017 season in the Phillies’ system.

The Phillies rebuild so far has involved a lot of trades at the top of the system. There have been homegrown players that have trickled up through the system to join them with Rhys Hoskins, J.P. Crawford, Franklyn Kilome, Scott Kingery, and others making a stop in New Jersey for at least a few months, but Lakewood had yet to see the mass arrival of top prospects. That all changed in 2017 as the Phillies aggressively pushed teenagers to Lakewood. #1 overall pick Mickey Moniak, top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez, and GCL breakout second baseman Daniel Brito all jumped over Williamsport to make their full season debuts. They were joined by members of last year’s Williamsport, particularly pitchers Adonis Medina, Ranger Suarez, and Bailey Falter, and shortstop Arquimedes Gamboa. The BlueClaws went through their growing pains, including some breakouts, and some disappointments. They even had an appearance by the Phillies 2017 first round pick. Ultimately, the talent promoted to Clearwater proved too great an obstacle for Lakewood to overcome and they missed the playoffs after reaching the championship series last season.

Final Record: 73-66 (T-1st in 1st Half, 5th in 2nd Half)

When the Lakewood roster was first announced most knew it would be a tough season for the BlueClaws. While the roster had top prospects, they were all relatively young with Brito, Gamboa, Moniak, Sanchez, and Falter all beginning the year at age 19 or younger. Given all of that, the BlueClaws were a pleasant surprise in the first half. Daniel Brito got off to a hot start, and Mickey Moniak held his own on offense for a bit, but the real key was the pitching. Despite losing their “ace” in Sixto Sanchez to injury and innings limits early, the left handed trio of JoJo Romero, Ranger Suarez, and Nick Fanti torched the South Atlantic League, while Adonis Medina and Bailey Falter added really solid first halfs. The result was a 40-30 record, with the most wins in the Northern division, however the 39-29 Kannapolis Intimidators didn’t play two games and edged the BlueClaws on W/L percentage points. Romero and Suarez were promoted to Clearwater, with Sanchez following a month later, which weakened the starting pitching staff. The efforts of Medina, Fanit, Falter, and Mauricio Llovera helped the BlueClaws to still come in with the 3rd lowest ERA in the SAL. However, the offense struggled and even with Darick Hall mashing homers, the team was just not able to put together enough wins, putting up a disappointing 33-36 record in the second half.

Jeff’s Guy:

This site would not function without the contributions of Jeff Israel. This summer Jeff crisscrossed the Phillies’ northern affiliates. For this series he has contributed a player who caught his interest at each level.

Arquimedes Gamboa:

I started to follow Matt on Twitter last year and he raved about Gamboa’s potential. I thought he was a bit crazy considering Gamboa hit a measly .194/.253/.272 in 85 career games in his first two seasons across the GCL and Williamsport.  I ended up missing him in the four April games I attended due to an injury he suffered during the first week. In the second half, I watched him four times. He made a heck of an impression going 8/17, 2 R, 4 RBI, 3/2 K/BB, 3 SB in the four games. Gamboa finished with a flurry as well, going on a season-ending 14-game hit streak, hitting .418 (23/55). Overall, he hit .261/.328/.378 with a 9.4% BB and 14.9% K in Lakewood. The improved plate discipline was the most encouraging thing, as it lead to more consistent at-bats where eventually he would hit mistakes more by season’s end. He’s much more comfortable hitting left-handed (.274, .760 OPS) as opposed to hitting right-handed (.227, .570 OPS). Gamboa also has plus athleticism and shows all the tools to be a top flight defensive SS for years to come. After years of JP Crawford having a stranglehold on being the top minor league SS in the system, the 20 year old Gamboa can probably claim that title with really only Jonathan Guzman as competition.

The View From the Ground

I wanted as part of this series of recaps to bring in some outside voices, so what better way than to talk to some people who are there nearly everyday. Jay Floyd has covered the Phillies minor leagues for years. His website, Phoulballz, is the best site out there for player and coach interviews, and is invaluable for the perspective it provides on players.

Tim Tebow got the national headlines, but Sixto Sanchez was the spectacle in Lakewood this year. What was the environment in the park when he pitched?

Sixto was quickly becoming the name to see in the Phillies’ system this year.  There was some extra fan buzz for sure, as the season went on.  His 2nd half stats (1.91 ERA, 8.7 K/9, .179 BAA) just ensured the BlueClaws would get a shot at a win each time he took the hill, which energized the team behind him.

He’s a combination of both talented and smart, which is why he stands out.  He’s able to fire it up and hurl triple digits, but he can wisely vary the velocity.  Sanchez can pitch with great command and all the positive reviews are on point.  

When he was out there, Sixto electrified the game.  He was the sensation of the 2017 BlueClaws.

This was the second year a Lakewood hitter went on a home run binge. Last year, Jose Pujols went 12/12 Home and road with his home runs, this year Darick Hall hit 22 of his 29 on the road. Can you speak to how the park effects hitters?

Hall’s presence in the Lakewood lineup was a huge key for that team.  His home/road splits display pretty clearly that Lakewood’s FirstEnergy Park plays larger than other fields.  I wouldn’t say the park effects the BlueClaws hitters much.  It’s a place that many of them hear about before they step on the field.  They understand that the place is tough to hit the ball out of, just the same as Reading pitchers know ahead of time that their numbers could show the opposite- favorable factors for the offense- when they pitch at home in Reading’s FirstEnergy STADIUM.

The coaching staff in Lakewood references their place as “Yellowstone National Park” because it plays so huge.  They call center field “BigBoyVille”.  Seven out of 27 for Hall is telling about Lakewood, but the road numbers are just as telling to what a batter can do in more typical facilities.

If anything, that park gives Class A batters an extra level of hurdles to deal with as they attempt to develop their game.  Struggles and difficulties can be good things for players to deal with.  They are part of the game.

Coaches, instructors and other evaluators are very tuned in with keeping mental tallies of things that more or less give them sort of an adjusted average (or simply adjusted impressions) to accommodate for tough luck scenarios.  I can’t tell you how many times coaches and managers have cited how stats aren’t telling the full story for a hitter because he’s hitting the ball very hard right at people, or some similar thing.  They give that same feedback to the players.  That’s a reason I don’t think Phils prospects would be dragged down by a park that can sandbag some of their statistics.

There are also positives that come with the park in Lakewood.  It’s a newer venue with great amenities and a terrific fan base.  The BlueClaws led their league in attendance for 15 straight years and they have access to top notch training equipment and a full sized gym.  It’s a special place that hundreds or thousands of other players probably wish they could call home.

The Phillies aggressively sent 3 teenage hitters to Lakewood in Moniak, Brito, and Gamboa and all struggled at various points. What gives you hope for each of them?

Those guys all faced plenty of older pitching, so that is another hurdle for your youngest offensive contributors.  Young players, as tuned in as they are to everything that goes along with being young like social networking, the internet and all that, they see all that is said, tweeted and written.  They hear about any and all slumps just as well as they do the positive things that happen.  None of those guys let it impact their hard work.

There were instances where one or more of those players was trying to make up for the the dip in numbers and ended up chasing balls out of the zone in order to try to turn things around.  Recognizing those types of downturns is what the minors leagues and developing are all about.

Furthermore on Moniak, because of his draft spot, I saw plenty of fans throughout the season voicing concerns about his numbers.  I had people regularly asking me what was wrong with him.  The tools are there and so are the intangibles.  He showed a lot of strength by dealing with the grind, the press, the ups and downs, the pressure of being a number one overall pick.  He showed durability and carried himself the right way.  He’s going to hit and pitchers better watch out when he does.

The pressure was definitely there for the other two guys also.  Both Brito and Gamboa are Venezuelan and had to leave friends and family back at home in the midst of economic, social and political struggles.  It’s impressive that each of these two infielders could produce solid numbers and take the strides that they did.

Sanchez was not the only BlueClaws pitcher to be successful this year. Was there any commonality to the success of Adonis Medina, JoJo Romero, Nick Fanti, Bailey Falter, and Ranger Suarez?

All of those guys get it.  They all improved and they all helped one another.  They know the minors are about working to improve.  It’s about getting to the next level.  Fanti and Falter were still with Lakewood at season’s end while the others all moved up, but I’d say those guys showed loads of improvements and either one could have easily been competing side by side with those others at the next level by season’s end.  

There was unity.  There was bonding.  Even with Trevor Bettencourt, a talented reliever, who isn’t often lumped in with those others because they are starters.

That group deserved all the recognition they got and maybe more.  Plenty of talent among those pitchers.       

Prospects to Watch:

(Ranger Suarez and JoJo Romero to appear on the Clearwater recap)

 

  • Mickey Moniak – When the Phillies took Moniak with the #1 pick in the 2016 draft he was supposed to be a polished hitter, with a good glove in center field, and an all around game. In Lakewood, he was an average center field defender, with an arm at least a grade below previous reports. He was still a plus plus runner. The big problem was that he just was not a good hitter. Moniak will always have problems with power, but there should be enough room in his frame to get fringe average to average in the future, but he has to make contact first. There were not a lot of negative things said about Moniak’s swing, but his approach was atrocious. Pitchers were able to get him out easily with anything off speed, and his timing and pitch recognition led him to be so pull heavy that teams started shifting him early in the year. Once fatigue set in, Moniak’s season spiral completely out of control. The physical tools are there for Moniak to be a solid major leaguer, but he is going to need to completely overhaul his approach and pitch recognition to get anywhere close to that.
  • Arquimedes Gamboa – Gamboa received the highest bonus of the Phillies 3 big money Latin shortstops in 2014. For his first two years in the system, Gamboa flashed talent, but little feel for the game. As the season went on, Gamboa started to put all of his tools together on both sides of the ball. In the field, he is a true shortstop and has a chance to be a plus defender at his peak. At the plate, he showed good plate discipline and the ability to drive the ball, including sneaky power. Gamboa still struggles from the right side, and had extreme platoon splits this season. He has also been nicked up the past few years with leg injuries, and it will be important for him to put together success for than a month or two. He will be on the shortlist of breakout candidates in the 2018 season.
  • Daniel Brito – Brito was a trendy breakout prospect pick after a great GCL season. Those sentiments seemed to be coming true when he went on a tear in April. From that point on, Brito struggled both at driving the ball and maintaining a good approach. Don’t be fooled by the numbers, Brito’s assignment was an aggressive one, and he wore down over the course of the year, contributing to the slump. Brito will need to become less pull heavy because he has a great feel for contact, and he has at least future average power. Brito is a great defender at second base and probably would be playing shortstop in other organizations. Brito’s future is still bright, the breakout just might be delayed.
  • Darick Hall – There might not be a prospect with a bigger split opinion among fans than Hall. Hall’s surface stats were great, he hit 29 home runs with his 27 in 114 Lakewood games earning him South Atlantic League MVP honors. His 29 walks to 117 strikeouts in 452 plate appearances shows how problematic his approach can be. He was able to feast on weak low-A pitching, and most evaluators don’t think he can handle good offspeed pitches. On the positive side, this is Hall’s first year as a full time hitter, and his raw power is legitimately plus to plus plus. Hall will not only need to continue to put up huge power numbers, he is going to need to make some major adjustments in approach and pitch recognition to have a major league future.
  • Nick Fanti – Nick Fanti put up what were probably the two best pitching performances by a Phillies prospect this year when he went 8.2 and 9 innings in Lakewood no-hitters. Fanti is more feel than stuff, with his changeup progressing enough to give him a third pitch next to his fastball and loopy curveball. None his pitches are more than average and his fastball routinely lives in the high 80s. Unlike Bailey Falter, Fanti doesn’t have a projectable frame, but maybe there is another 1-2 miles per hour in his arm. Without an unexpected step forward, Fanti profiles as a LOOGY or a AAAA starter.
  • Sixto Sanchez – Sixto Sanchez reports are not safe for work. Sanchez spent most of the year at age 18, but that didn’t stop him from sitting 97-100 with his fastball, touching up to 102. Sanchez’s secondary pitches are a work in progress as he continues to experiment, but over the course of the season he has shown plus potential on his changeup, slider, and curveball. Sanchez still needs to work on his fastball command, and he left too many pitches in hittable spots this year. Even with the work needed, Sanchez is one of the best pitching prospects in the minors and has top of the rotation potential.
  • Adonis Medina – Medina’s 2016 season was often described as a disappointment as his strikeout rate plummeted, while he toiled in obscurity in the New York Penn League. However, late last season Medina started to flash a new pitch, a slider. This year it wasn’t the slider that lead Medina to dominance, but it was his level of feel for pitching. The 20 year old throws a heavy fastball that sits 91 to 95, and can touch 97. His slider is now a big part of his arsenal, and while it can get a bit slurvy, it shows plus potential. His changeup has taken a big step forward, and it now shows more fade and deception. His curveball is probably more of an average pitch, but even without it Medina has a chance to have 3 plus pitches at his peak. Medina lacks, Sanchez’s pure upside, but he could be a #3 starter, with a chance at bit more.
  • Bailey Falter – While fellow lefties Suarez, Romero, and Fanti dominated, Bailey Falter was merely solid. The big lefty tops out at 94, but mostly sits 88-92, but he has the frame to add a little bit more with time. He has shown a curveball and a changeup,but neither has shown plus potential yet. Falter is still a bit of a project, but has the foundation to take off if he can add velocity or secondary pitches.
  • Mauricio Llovera – Outside of Sixto Sanchez, Llovera probably had the most electric fastball in the lower minors of the Phillies. Is a reliever his fastball sat 96-98 and as a starter it dipped a little bit to 94-96. His secondary pitches are fringey and his command is suspect. However, his fastball was enough to dominate the South Atlantic League for stretches.
  • Felix Paulino – With injuries and promotions, Felix Paulino got some run in the Lakewood rotation this season, but he is a reliever long term. His fastball can get up to 96 and he will show a good slider. He wasn’t able to hold his stuff late into games and struggled with his control.
  • Alejandro Requena – Requena barely pitched for the BlueClaws after the trade, but he should be mentioned alongside the talented Lakewood rotation. Requena is not overpowering, but he has a low 90s fastball to go with a 3 pitch mix. He doesn’t have front line upside, but he might be a back end starter down the road.

 

Author: Matt Winkelman

Matt Winkelman
Matt is originally from Mt. Holly, NJ, but after a 4 year side track to Cleveland for college he now resides in Madison, WI. His work has appeared on Phuture Phillies, The Good Phight, and TheDynastyGuru.

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