The biggest weakness in the Phillies system coming into the 2014 season (outside a general lack of talent) was that their minor league system was out of arms, and especially healthy starting pitchers. My Top 30 Prospect list coming into the season featured a grand total of 8 pitchers, of which 6 were starters. Of those 6 starters only 2 were not injured or had not ended 2013 injured. Since then, the Phillies have been acquiring pitching at every turn (internationally, trades, draft) and have seen the emergence of some arms from both obscurity and injury. In 2014, the minor league affiliates struggled to have full rotations, in 2015 those same rotations are going to be struggling to give starters innings to all of the prospects.
The Preseason List:
Of this list only Severino and Anderson were healthy starters, Anderson went down early in camp and was joined by Ethan Martin, who the Phillies had been stretching out as a starter. Biddle was healthy in camp, but a chunk of ice felled him in May. Mecias returned from Tommy John, rusty, but no worse for it. Ken Giles emerged as the breakout player of the system. Morgan came back late in the year, but the stuff isn’t there and may never come back. Watson is still out and will start 2015 both rehabbing and serving a 50 game suspension. All in all it was pretty bleak.
The Breakout List:
So while the Phillies have done a great job at acquiring pitching, there have been some emergences in the system on the starting pitching front. The biggest might be the return of Yoel Mecias from Tommy John surgery, the lefty might have the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the organization outside of the Aaron Nola, especially if he can add strength this offseason. In addition to Mecias, two international arms emerged in the low minors. The first is LHP Elniery Garcia who pitched in the GCL and showed advanced feel for an arsenal that right now is lack on impact outside of the curveball but has the room to be three plus pitches down the road. Another arm that emerged was RHP Ricardo Pinto who dominated the New York-Penn League with a plus fastball and plus changeup, Pinto is not the largest pitcher and the slider is only start to flash average, but he is a real competitor on the mound with the stuff to back it up. In less impactful roles Miguel Nunez, Lewis Alezones, and Denton Keys all progressed forward in 2014, Nunez has a #4 starter ceiling and a strong end of year may have gotten him a ticket to AA. Alezones and Keys are still waiting on the strength and velocity to come, but when it does, they already have a lot of the feel for pitching already in place. On the relief pitcher side, the big breakout was Nefi Ogando who could be in line to be a lesser version of Ken Giles. In the low minors Edubray Ramos as shown big stuff for a small pitcher and could move very quickly next year.
Lets start with the draft, headlined by the Phillies top pitching prospect Aaron Nola. Nola is a front line pitcher who has gotten dinged for not putting up the flashy velocity numbers of those around him, but it is not stuff to sleep on and should arrive very quickly. Matt Imhof‘s ceiling isn’t as large as some other pitchers in the system, but the big left knows how to pitch and is young enough the secondaries have time to grow. The big arms the Phillies brought in have plenty of red flags as Chris Oliver‘s command is all over the place, but it is a 60 fastball and 60 slider, so at minimum they could unleash him in the bullpen. Sam McWilliams was up to mid-90s in HS in some starts, but the giant skinny RH was mostly in the 80s until late in instructional league, he is a lottery ticket. Brandon Leibrandt lost most of his 2014 college season to injury, that coupled with pedestrian velocity dropped him to the Phillies in the 6th round. He was able to to dominate low minors competition with his changeup, but will need to have more 90mph fastballs than he flashed in instructional league.
The least reported search for pitching was in amatuer free agent signings. There are three big names to be aware of here in Franklyn Kilome, Jason Zgardowski, and Josh Taylor. I have talked a lot about Kilome (who the Phillies signed before the start of the year) here and on Twitter, but he is the biggest pitching lottery ticket the Phillies have. There is the frame for big velocity and a sinker that could carry him all the way through the minors, throw in a solid delivery, developing control, and some feel for secondary pitches and you have a potential monster pitcher. Zgardowski is the least likely of the trio to stick as a starter, but he is trying to work on adding a consistent splitter and two-seam fastball to his 4-seamer and slider. Zgardowski is lanky and young for a college junior (just turned 21) with a fastball already up to 96, so there is some merit to the Phillies thinking there is even more in the arm. Taylor is a guy I wish I knew more about, but the looks have been very limited in his early career, but a big bodied lefty signed as an undrafted junior he brings his fastball at 92-93 and can get to 94, there is a changeup and curveball as well, the changeup is behind the breaking ball. It is hard to project an undrafted FA as a starter going forward, but it seems like Taylor has a lot of the ingredients to make a run at it.
The last phase of acquisition is in trades. In this phase Amaro has added 4 interesting starting pitching arms to the system. The first was this summer in RHP Victor Arano from the Dodgers. Arano doesn’t have the normal projection you might expect from a teenager, but he does have more polish and better present stuff than many. All the pitches are in the above average to plus range, though the fastball has actually gotten into the mid-90s out of the bullpen. Arano should be in hi-A next year and likely should settle into a #4 starting pitcher type profile. The next move early in the winter meetings was acquiring Joely Rodriguez from the Pirates. Rodriguez brings good velocity from the left side and developing feel for his pitches that saw him take a leap forward in the Arizona fall league. Working with Ray Burris (who will be his pitching coach in Lehigh Valley), Rodriguez attacked batters and saw his strikeout rate finally rise to meet his stuff. There is still a big chance he ends up in the bullpen where his fastball could play up into the mid-90s, but for now he will be in the AAA rotation. The last two players are not official confirmed as they are part of the Jimmy Rollins trade, but the expected return is RHP Zach Eflin and LHP Tom Windle. I wrote about them in the trade recap piece, but both should go to the AA rotation. I like Eflin more than Windle because I think Eflin has a better chance to stay in the rotation and a slightly higher ceiling. Both have mid rotation upside if they can continue to advance their secondary offerings forward (Eflin’s slider and Windle’s changeup). All in all it is 4 pitchers realistically with #3/#4 starter upside and enough stuff that the fallback is impact reliever.
When I list all the names in their groups, it does not sound that impressive. But what is impressive is the projected minor league rotations. Note these are highly subject to change and the low minors rotations could be affected by the 2015 Rule 4 draft. There are also some extra starters at each level.
Lehigh Valley: Jesse Biddle, Joely Rodriguez, Adam Loewen, Adam Morgan, Aaron Nola
Clearwater: Yoel Mecias, Victor Arano, Matt Imhof, Brand Leibrandt, Drew Anderson/Yacksel Rios
Williamsport: Franklyn Kilome, Denton Keys, Lewis Alezones, Jason Zgardowski
GCL: Sam McWilliams
There isn’t a lineup of aces coming down the pipe, but the transformation has been dramatic. There is a good chance the Phillies can fill in a lot of rotation holes from within as they continue through the rebuild. Some of these guys will also join the ranks of the young relievers the Phillies have amassed over the past few seasons.
Photo by Tom Hagerty