Phillies’ top ten prospects Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin and Jesse Biddle are the top starting pitchers with the Reading Fightin Phils. While Reading boasts five potential major league starters, the Fightin Phils final two starters, Ben Lively and Tom Windle, are bigger question marks and lack the upside like Reading’s front three.
Lively, 22, was acquired in exchanged for Marlon Byrd from Cincinnati in the winter and has quickly found success in the Eastern League. He brings a deceptive delivery and throwing motion along with four pitchers, albeit none of them expected to be dominant at the major league level, which severely limits his potential as a major league starter.
Lively’s control of all four pitches along with his ability to avoid walks makes him a pitcher with major league potential. His fastball sits 90-92, but his ability to hit the corners has made him successful in his three years in the minor leagues. Prior to his start against Portland on Sunday, Lively had averaged 2.9 walks per nine innings pitched in 235.2 innings.
Lively’s arsenal includes a slider, change and curve to complement his fastball command and his deceptive delivery, which has caused a lot of swings and misses early in his minor league career. All three secondary pitches Lively offers are average and must become better in order for him to move from a number five starter profile to a mid-rotation starter. A hopeful outcome for the Phillies is for Lively to climb quickly up their system and enter the rotation toward the end of the 2016 campaign.
The amount of strikeouts Lively has been able to record early in his minor league career draws the question of whether he can keep it up as he rises up the minor league ranks and possibly into the majors with the Phillies in the next year or two. He has struck out nearly ten batters per nine innings pitched over his minor league career, but is striking out less in a small sample with Reading this season. In 43.2 innings with the Fightin Phils, the former Reds 2013 fourth round selection has retired 33 batters on strikeouts, a rate of 6.8 batters per nine innings, his lowest for any year since he turned pro. In fact, his K/9 has decreased each year.
However, Lively is unlikely to strike out close to a batter per inning in the major leagues. MLB hitters will be less susceptible to swings and misses because of his deception and will read his off-speed pitchers much better than Lively’s opposition does now. It will be crucial for Lively to stay out of the middle of the plate, continue to pound the strike zone and work both sides of the plate. If he can add more velocity to his fastball that would be great for his upside, but at this point it seems unlikely and that’s where it will probably stay.
Tom Windle, acquired in the Jimmy Rollins trade, is another arm in Reading that has major league potential, but has high risk. I envision Windle as a lefty reliever in all likelihood, but he could find a home as a number five starter if his off speed pitches develop. Windle was selected by Los Angeles in the second round of the 2013 draft after being selected by Chicago out of Osseo High School just three years earlier.
Unlike Lively, Windle’s control is his biggest question mark in terms of potential. He has walked a career high 5.1 batters per nine innings this season, up from his career average of 3.4 BB/9. His fastball and slider are his best two pitches, but he continues to work on a changeup in hopes of having three satisfactory pitches to utilize as a major league starter.
Reports on his fastball velocity have varied, but seem to average between 91-93. The Phillies have been adjusting his mechanics over the past few months in hopes of his delivery becoming more consistent. The ability to hit the zone on a regular basis will be required for Windle to become a major league pitcher, either as a starter or as a reliever. He’s an intriguing prospect to watch, but is out of the top ten on my prospect list and the likely outcome is a lefty specialist in the bullpen or a middle reliever.