The 2011 minor league season is upon us, with all four full season teams kicking off their schedules today. For those of you who, like me, are serial box score refreshers, the Philly farm system officially kicks off the season at 6:00 with Reading (led by starter Josh Zeid) taking on the Portland Sea Dogs in Eastern League action. There will be plenty to talk about over the coming months, and I'll have the first of the weekly prospect roundups starting this Monday, but for now, let's ask five questions to preview the prospecty goodness that awaits us.
1. Who's primed for a breakout campaign?
Just like last year, I'm going to tab a couple of higher end breakout guys (both on the Top 30), and a couple of guys from off the Top 30. On the pitching side of the ledger, I'm expecting 2010 1st rounder Jesse Biddle to turn some heads in Lakewood this year. I've made this comparison a few times before, but I think it bears repeating: the last time the Phillies were accused of overdrafting a pitcher in their backyard, Jason Knapp opened his first full season in Lakewood, and wound up the centerpiece of the original Cliff Lee deal. I'm hoping Biddle has better health than Knapp (and, of course, I hope he isn't traded), but I have a feeling he's in for the same sort of breakout.
The Top 30 hitter I'm most excited to see in pro ball is 2010 6th round pick Gauntlett Eldemire. Sidelined by a wrist injury, the University of Ohio product has yet to make his pro debut, but features the kind of raw tools -- above-average speed and power -- that make him one to keep an eye on. Not to go overboard comparing current draft picks to past ones, but the organization did have some luck in altering Michael Taylor's swing to facilitate a breakout, so maybe all Gauntlett needs is some professional instruction to truly unlock his ability.
At the other end of the spectrum, I'll take a couple of fliers on some guys in the low minors who have a shot as post-hype sleepers, if you will. It's hard to believe that Zach Collier is still only 20 years old, but indeed he is, and even after missing an entire year through injury, he's still age appropriate for Lakewood. Collier had a nightmare 2009 at the dish, but he was always thought to be a better pure hitter than Anthony Gose and Anthony Hewitt, and I wouldn't be shocked to see him put it together this year. As for a hurler, I think Lino Martinez, a 2009 free agent signing out of Venezuela, could surprise some people. The lefty will begin in extended spring training, but he put up decent numbers for the GCL Phillies last year, and as a southpaw, he'll get plenty of opportunities to prove his usefulness.
2. Can Jarred Cosart stay healthy?
Aside from maybe Domonic Brown, there's no one with more pure upside in the farm system than Jarred Cosart, but his ceiling will quickly tumble from "frontline ace" to "closer" to "When did Dusty Baker manage this guy?" if he can't stay on the field. I don't want to label Cosart as injury prone, because the Phillies have (rightfully) been cautious with the young flamethrower and, besides, it's too early to make sweeping judgments like that. If Cosart can find a way to log 100 to 120 innings in Clearwater this year, there's simply no way he doesn't pitch well in the
hitter friendly pitcher friendly FSL, and if all goes well, he could line himself up for a 2013 (or even September 2012) major league look. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though -- Cosart needs to get through an entire season unscathed before we consider realistic MLB paths.
3. Who can help the big league club this year?
Rule 5 pick Michael Martinez was the only rookie eligible player to make the Opening Day roster, but at 28, he's not really a prospect in the classic sense. The biggest offensive contribution from the young 'uns will come from Domonic Brown (assuming, of course, he can make some sort of Lazarus-like return from the depths). Brown will spend some time in Triple-A rehabbing his wrist injury, but there's some definite wiggle room on the 25 man (coughcoughPeteOrrcough), so expect to see him back in Philly by the All-Star break at the latest.
On the pitching side of the ledger, Vance Worley is the 7th starter (because Kyle Kendrick apparently still has naked pictures of somebody), so there's certainly a chance that he gets a few spot starts this year. In the bullpen, it certainly seems like something clicked for Mike Stutes in spring training, so he looks like the first guy in Lehigh Valley to get a shot when a roster spot opens up. Scott Mathieson's probably next in line -- though I'm not sure what else he needs to do at this point -- while relievers like Justin De Fratus, Michael Schwimer, and even Phillippe Aumont have an outside shot at contributing this year if they have big years.
4. Can the infamous "Cliff Lee trio" bounce back?
Speaking of Aumont, Wheels... by all accounts, he had a pretty good spring training, and he opens the 2011 season with two crucial differences as opposed to last year: (1) he's in his preferred bullpen role; and (2) he's actually at a level appropriate for his age and level of experience. I still think Aumont's a potential late inning reliever, and while he's a bit rough around the edges, I expect him to take a big step forward this year in Reading. On the other hand, I'm not sure what to make of J.C. Ramirez, who has solid enough stuff but has had big problems with left-handed hitters. 2011 represents a make-or-break year for him as a future major league starter, and while the organization still seems bullish on his potential, I have a gut feeling that any major league career he has will be as a reliever.
Finally, we've got the star-crossed Tyson Gillies, whose hamstrings just won't seem to cooperate. Though he's tumbled down prospect lists in most places, both Phuture Phillies and I included the young speedster in our Top 10 lists -- but the more time he spends away from the field, the more it hurts his development, so this latest development is certainly not an encouraging one. In short, Gillies needs to have a health bounceback before we can even think about a performance bounceback.
5. Who's trade bait?
While even Ruben Amaro isn't crazy enough to trade for another ace at the trade deadline -- if only because the Smug Advisory System doesn't have a setting for that -- it's not out of the question that the club would look to add a bat or a reliever at the end of July. To Amaro's credit, he's only surrendered truly top notch talent in the Halladay deal, so you would think that names like Jarred Cosart, Brody Colvin, and Jonathan Singleton would all be off the table.
Who, then, might be dangled? Matt Rizzotti seems like an obvious candidate: a first baseman by trade, there's no chance he's an everyday player in red pinstripes, and while he's not going to be the centerpiece of a deal, an AL team would do well to ask for him in a potential trade. I'd expect a second tier arm like Trevor May or Julio Rodriguez to be sought after, and if the organization isn't going to give Mathieson his shot, I'd certainly be asking about him were I a rival general manager.