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Five Questions on the Phillies Upcoming Minor League Season

With the various rosters having been announced over the past few days, we're starting to get a clearer picture of how the 2010 minor league season shapes up.  For crazy people like me, this really underscores the beginning of baseball season, since it gives us four more box scores to check per day.  So with the season getting underway later today for all four of the Phillies' full season affiliates, let's do a quick overview in the form of five key questions for the Phils' prospects this year.

1.  How will the trio of prospects received for Cliff Lee fare?

On the heels of the infamous Lee deal, even the WIP types are taking an interest in how Tyson Gillies, Phillippe Aumont, and J.C. Ramirez fare this season and beyond.  Rightly or wrongly, unless the Phils recoup the World Series crown this year, the Lee deal will be judged on the ultimate effectiveness of this trio.  So, as I noted in the offseason prospect rankings, it's only appropriate that two of the three are beginning the year in Double-A, which is the hardest jump in the minors to make.

The good news is that even before pulling on a Reading jersey, Gillies is already turning heads.  The raw tools and work ethic are clearly there, so the primary concern here is polishing: building on last season's plate discipline gains, honing baserunning instincts, improving jumps and routes in the outfield.  For the pitchers, things are a bit less straightforward.  Aumont is transitioning back to starting, with the organization changing his arm slot in an effort to clean up his mechanics; the early returns are good, but patience is necessary with a guy who's barely thrown 100 pro innings.  And just as he was when the trade was made, Ramirez remains the mystery guy.  Frankie Piliere had an encouraging report on J.C. from a couple of weeks ago, with it ultimately reinforcing what we already knew: that Ramirez's slider needs some work, and his change up even more so, if he's going to fulfill his potential as a front line starter.  Ramirez will begin the year at High-A Clearwater, though sustained success is likely to see the Phils bump him to Reading as well.

2.  Will Trevor May improve his control?

An overslot signing as a 4th round pick back in 2008, May burst onto the scene in Lakewood in mid-June of last year, stringing together a number of high strikeout performances to jump up prospect lists.  There's a lot to like here -- the big pitching frame, the hard fastball, the 95 strikeouts in 77.1 innings -- but the priority for May has to be to cut down on the free passes (he issued 43 last year, or 5.0 per 9 innings).  As the top pitching prospect in the system for now, May has a lot of potential, but we'll need to see improvement in Clearwater if he's to stay there.

3.  Will any of the toolsy outfielders make any progress in developing their skills?

Hey, your guess is as good as Benny Looper's.  Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus agreed that it's pretty much a crapshoot, stressing that guys such as Anthony Gose, Jiwan James, Anthony Hewitt, Zach Collier, Kyrell Hudson, and Aaron Altherr are "lottery tickets, but if you don't play, you don't win."  Gose and James have shown enough in performance to merit spots in my top 15 prospects, but both still have a lot of work to do on their hitting, which they'll do at Clearwater and Lakewood, respectively.  We're still waiting for the breakout from the others; Hewitt has stroked a couple of home runs this spring and seems much more comfortable in the outfield, and he and Collier will also begin the year in Lakewood.

And speaking of young outfielders, it's worth noting that Domingo Santana (my #7 prospect) is slated to begin the year in Lakewood.  Seeing as Santana is just 17, this is a pretty big deal, and says a lot about what the Phillies think about this kid.

4.  Can anyone help the big league club in 2010?

Three rookie eligibles have already made the Opening Day roster in the form of Antonio Bastardo, David Herndon, and Andrew Carpenter.  With the bullpen in flux in the wake of J.C. Romero's and Brad Lidge's injuries, Bastardo and Herndon especially have an opportunity to cement their spots.  If Bastardo can keep hitters off balance with his secondary stuff, he could prove an invaluable asset as Scott Eyre's, um, heir apparent, while Herndon will be asked to soak up innings as a latter day Clay Condrey.

Other future bullpen candidates include Scott Mathieson, who is likely to be up by midseason with some solid performances in Lehigh Valley, and Mike Zagurski, who will likewise be readying himself in Triple-A in the event of a Romero setback or struggles from Bastardo.  Reading relievers B.J. Rosenberg, Michael Schwimer and Mike Stutes have a steeper climb in front of them to help the club this year, but could debut under the right circumstances.  Although not rookie eligible anymore, John Mayberry is on hand in Lehigh Valley as the likely first call-up in the event of an outfield injury.  A Mets 2009 style injury Armageddon would have to befall the big league club for Domonic Brown, Gillies, or Quintin Berry to make their debuts before September.

5.  Who's primed for a breakout campaign?

At the high end, there are a couple of guys who are already well thought of prospects, but from whom I'm anticipating big leaps forward anyway.  The first is pitcher Jarred Cosart, who checked in at #10 overall in my offseason rankings, and will begin the year in Lakewood.  He's already generated some buzz as the subject of a Jim Salisbury article on CSN, and if you need any further proof that the organization is excited about this him, here's what Schwimer (who doubles as Phuture Phillies blogger) had to say: "Before the start of next season Jarred Cosart will be a Top 25 prospect in all of baseball."

First baseman Jonathan Singleton has likewise been the subject of some impressive scouting reports from spring training, and the positive reports in conjunction with the fantastic plate discipline he demonstrated in the GCL last year have him looking like a big-time sleeper.  Surprisingly, he'll begin the year in extended training instead of Lakewood -- rumor has it the organization wants him to work on his defense -- but I'm expecting him to turn some heads in the New York-Penn League later this summer.

At the lower reaches of the Top 30 and beyond, I wanted to flag a pair of guys who are worth keeping an eye on this year.  Pitcher Jesus Sanchez checked in at #27 on the top 30 after an impressive year in which he converted to pitching and posted a 2.77 FIP as a starter in Lakewood.  It'll be exciting to see what Sanchez can do for an encore, especially as he learns the nuances of pitch sequencing and works to hone his secondary stuff.  For a lower level position player, I'm going to jump on Phuture Phillies' bandwagon and tab Aaron Altherr, one of the lottery ticket outfielders I mentioned above.  He was apparently quite the basketball player in high school, so the athleticism is certainly there, and despite limited baseball experience, he did a decent job of controlling the strike zone in limited GCL playing time last year (8.7% BB, 17.9% K in 92 plate appearances).  He's likely to start with Singleton in Williamsport, so we'll have to wait to see what kind of strides Altherr will be able to make this year.

star-dividev5547.jpg picture by themsgoodeaton

I'll be back with the season's initial Minor League Update next Monday, once we have more than a couple of days worth of games under our belts.  Until then, go IronPigs/Phillies/Threshers/BlueClaws!