In the middle of the minor league season, the Phillies devastated the Lakewood BlueClaws rotation. The Phillies’ lowest full season club had been sporting a 6 man rotation that was fairly standard and had led them to decent success. But within a span of weeks the Phillies promoted their top pitcher, Ricardo Pinto, to Clearwater and had shipped off their second best pitcher (Josh Taylor) and the highest draft pick in their rotation (Chris Oliver) to Arizona in exchange for the right to spend more international money. They then got the dying gasps of Yoel Mecias’ career before getting some last minute replacements and completing a ragtag group of six starters. This group would lead the BlueClaws to a 40-30 second half record, and yet most of their names wouldn’t even elicit a response from all but the most hardcore Phillies fans.
This group of pitchers is notable not just for their anonymity or their lack of prospectiness, but for the weirdness of their profiles. Most minor league starters tend to fall into buckets you have seen before and you can very quickly separate the prospects from the filler. In a way, Lakewood’s rotation is almost all filler, but yet each has something going on that makes you look twice at them. So let’s introduce them:
Elniery Garcia – Garcia is the top prospect of the group and probably the most normal and “conventional” of the group. We have all seen an Elniery Garcia before, he is left handed, his size isn’t ideal, his stuff isn’t overpowering, but he throws strikes and the stuff isn’t bad. Garcia throws 89-92, with an above average to plus curveball, and feel for a solid changeup. It is a back end start profile and he pitched like it this year. He is also the youngest of the group and won’t turn 21 until the day before Christmas.
Shane Watson – Watson is the most well known member of the group and the highest draft pick. He was a comp first round pick back in 2012 and was actually the top pitching prospect on the 2013 Lakewood staff. But he missed almost 2 years to shoulder injuries and is somewhat a shell of his former self. His fastball is 89-92 touching 93 and he was more 91-94 touching 95-96 in his first few years. His curveball lacks the bite it used to and a developing changeup has backed up over time. His delivery is also a mess, but he is healthy and pitching so let’s cut the former top pick some slack.
Tyler Viza – Viza was an “overslot” signing (he got $160,000) in the 32nd round of the 2013 draft when his fastball jumped a few miles per hour in late spring. Normally a player like Viza goes to extended spring training before heading to the GCL or Lakewood, in this case a pitcher shortage shoved Viza to Lakewood in 2014 where he was just abused by opposing hitters to a 3-17 record and a 5.29 ERA. Now on schedule, Viza returned to Lakewood in 2015. He is the prototype fringy high school guy, his fastball ticked up in 2015 from 88-89 to 89-91 and he featured a much improved changeup and breaking ball. He still didn’t walk any batters, but he saw his K% got from 14% to 17.8%. He gave some of this strikeouts back in the second half in exchange for dramatically lowering his home run and walk rate. He isn’t a big time prospect, but at only 21 (since October) he is not as left for dead as he was last year.
Ranfi Casimiro – Joining Viza on the Lakewood reunion tour was 6’8″ 200lb Ranfi Casimiro. The 2015 season represent Ranfi’s 5th pro season, and at 23 years old he is starting to get up there in age. But he dramatically lowered his ERA (4.92 to 3.35) and more impressively more than cut his walk rate in half from 11.6% to 5.3% and while his K/9 dropped by almost 1 per 9, in reality his K% only dropped from 16.4% to 16.1% while he got more efficient. The Phillies dialed back his velocity some to 89-92 touching 93, which allowed him to find consistency in his delivery, which also allowed his changeup and curveball to progress nicely.
Will Morris – Now we get into the weird. Morris was a 24th round JuCo draftee in 24 and was actually really good in Lakewood’s bullpen in 2014, posting a 3.52 ERA with a 3.1% BB% and 26.3% K%. But he was then held back in Extended Spring Training and bounced around everywhere starting May, working exclusively out of the bullpen along the way. On July 6 he was promoted back to Lakewood after dominating in Williamsport’s bullpen and went immediately into the vacated rotation spot. After not starting all year, he went 5 innings in his first start and never looked back posting a 1.65 ERA over 10 games with 11 walks and 31 strikeouts over 65.1 innings pitched. But the most amazing thing is that he turned into a ground ball machine. After posting a 40% GB% in 2014 he posted a 52% rate in Lakewood and overall just stifled solid contact. His arsenal is still fairly modest, but he is great size and the ability to go from bullpen to rotation and put up the inning totals he did (55.1 innings over his last 8 starters) will get you noticed.
Austin Davis – Davis was a trendy sleeper in the org after he rose and feel on 2014 draft boards before ultimately joining the Phillies as a 12th round pick. He put up great numbers in the GCL to so-so reviews on his delivery. He was solid as a reliever for the BlueClaws, posting a 2.58 ERA as a reliever, but he walked 23 batters in those 38 innings. After moving to the rotation his ERA nearly doubled, but he saw a dramatic decrease in walk rate 13.6% to 8.2% and slight uptick in strikeouts 18.8% to 20.6%, and a drop in HR rate after moving to the rotation. He very much looks like a reliever starting, but he shows flashes a decent pitcher with a 4 pitch mix highlighted by a fastball at 88-92 that he can bump to 94.
Jairo Munoz – I only mentioned a 6 man rotation, but Munoz got 2 starts late in the year when Garcia was shut down for workload reasons. Munoz’s story has become rather famous now, but on the baseball field he is a lanky right handed pitcher who can get to 95 while showing some secondary pitches. He is probably a reliever, but is worth noting that the Phillies stretched him out to end the year and that has continued this winter (more on that later).
So that is a lot of words to get to the real reason this is all interesting to me. What do the Phillies do next with this group. We can assume that the Threshers are going to have a 6 man rotation next year, so right now we have 6 spots and 7 guys. Now add in Luke Leftwich and Tyler Gilbert from the Phillies 2015 draft class, plus Matt Imhof could end up make a retry at Clearwater if he can get healthy, same with Victor Arano. That is 11 pitchers and 6 spots. We can assume that Elniery Garcia gets one of them, this is where it gets interesting. Ranfi Casimiro is starting for his Dominican Winter League team and has been solid through his 3 starts, and Davis, Munoz, and Morris are all sharing a Nicaraguan Winter League rotation (Indios del Boer). Davis has been utterly dominant posting a 0.41 ERA over 4 starts and 22 innings while walking 2 and striking out 29. So it is all unclear, and the future Lakewood rotation is starting to fill up with players like Franklyn Kilome, Bailey Falter, Ranger Suarez, Jose Taveras, Adonis Medina, Mitch Gueller, Alejandro Arteaga all eyeing spots next year.
Overall this game is really low stakes, with only 1 of the 7 Lakewood starters making my Top 50 this offseason, so the future of the Phillies is not in the balance. However, if the Phillies can turn one of these misfits into a major league starter or reliever it is a big win for a farm system that has been doing excellent work. But sometimes the end result is not the interesting part of all of this, the journey can be just as interesting and puzzling.