The Major League season kicked off a bit more than a week ago, but the real action this season will take place in the minor leagues. The minor league season kicked off last Thursday for the four full-season teams - Lehigh Valley (AAA), Reading (AA), Clearwater (High-A), and Lakewood (Low-A) - and the rosters of all four clubs are rife with highlights and must-see players you can catch along their path to the Big Show. At a time when the Phillies' system is at its strongest in some time, it seems appropriate to delve a little deeper and check out just what each squad has to offer.
We will kick off this exploration with the Phillies' Low-A South Atlantic League Affiliate in Lakewood, New Jersey.
Top Hitting Prospect: Cornelius Randolph
Randolph was the Phillies' first round pick in the 2015 draft (#10 overall). They moved the former high school shortstop to left field to speed up the arrival of his bat to the Majors, and in 2015 he showed why the Phillies valued his bat, posting a .302/.425/.442 line in the Gulf Coast League. Randolph has a quick bat and advanced approach; his only real weakness at the plate is the current lack of power. The Phillies expect him to get a bit larger and stronger, and they think the power will come as he learns to drive the ball more. In the field, he needs to work on his routes and his throws, but he has the ability to be an average defender. The Lakewood ballpark might keep his power numbers down, but Randolph could spray doubles around and make his stay in the SAL a short one.
Top Pitching Prospect: Franklyn Kilome
Franklyn Kilome is what you dream of with starting pitching prospects. He has a large frame, 6'6", that he added more muscle to this offseason. Last year, he pitched at 92-96 and touched up to 97-plus with large amounts of sink, and this spring he was already up to 93-96 in his starts. He mixes in a power curveball in the high 70s that he has flashed the ability to turn into a devastating, slider-like pitch that sits in the low 80s. His big advance this spring was a better changeup that shows good fade and deception. Kilome still needs to work on command and consistency in order to reach his ceiling, but that ceiling is one of a true, front line starting pitcher. The raw results may not be pristine night in and night out, as the coaching staff at Lakewood will look to solidify fastball command and focus on changeup refinement.
Two Others to Watch: Jose Pujols and Tyler Gilbert
Jose Pujols has long been a personal favorite of mine since the Phillies gave him a $500,000 bonus in 2012. The lanky right fielder shows plus or better power from great bat speed, and will put on majestic displays in batting practice. He knows what he needs his approach to be and he recognizes off speed pitches, but he does not always follow through with the plan, leading to high strikeout numbers. In the field, he is an adventure with his routes in right field, but he sports a cannon arm, that lacks accuracy.
Tyler Gilbert was the Phillies' 6th round pick in the 2015 draft as a starter/reliever out of University of Southern California. He dominated the New York-Penn League by throwing strikes with his low-90s fastball and mixing in solid offspeed offerings. He has scrapped his curveball for a slider this offseason, and looked good this spring. Most years Gilbert would have skipped straight to Clearwater, but with the pitching backlog there, he will start in Lakewood. He has mid-to-back-of-the-rotation upside, and should move quickly as the log jam in front of him opens up.
The number in parentheses next to a player's name indicates their rank in my Top 50
Deivi Grullon (17), Austin Bossart
Grullon makes a return trip to Lakewood after a mixed 2015 season. The glove-first catcher hit .221/.273/.335 on the season last year, but exploded in August to hit .301/.370/.470 after some mechanical adjustments. The 20-year-old has carried one of the largest catching workloads of any player in the minors. Joining him is 2015 14th-round pick Bossart, a senior sign out of U. Penn with a good glove and some feel for hitting. He does not have a ton of power and his zero walks in 37 games last year is concerning.
Grenny Cumana, Brendon Hayden, Jan Hernandez (49), Emmanuel Marrero, Josh Tobias (46)
The tiny Cumana, in his return trip to Lakewood, is a good glove shortstop with a strong arm and plus-plus speed. Unfortunately, he also weighs nothing soaking wet and struggles to hit the ball out of the infield. Tobias was a 10th-round senior who got to Williamsport and just plain hit last year. He is a bit old at 23, and is new to second base, but he has shown the ability to make a ton of contact, and he can run and has shown some power. Hernandez has big raw power and a big arm, but he struggles with consistency both at the plate and in the field. With improvement in his approach, he has the tools to be an everyday third baseman. Hayden is a lanky first baseman who showed a good approach last year, but no power. Marrero has become a minor league utility infielder who has a good glove up the middle.
Zach Coppola, Jose Pujols (16), Cornelius Randolph (6), Damek Tomscha, Jiandido Tromp
Outside of the already discussed Pujols and Randolph, there is still intriguing talent in the outfield. Coppola is built from the pieces of a Ben Revere starter kit, only he can throw and is a good defender in center field. Truer to the Revere form, he lacks anything resembling power and can run quite fast. Tomscha is 24 and transitioning to the outfield after being the BlueClaws' stabilizing force at third last year. Tromp will now be making his fourth trip to New Jersey and is still only 22 years old. He has intriguing tools with a good glove in center field, solid power and, at least, plus speed. His approach is still suspect and he strikes out at a prodigious rate. He was much better in the second half last year when he hit .251/.299/.455.
Franklyn Kilome (7), Tyler Gilbert (45), Luke Leftwich, Harold Arauz, Mitch Gueller, Shane Watson
Kilome and Gilbert will lead a rotation of interesting, but not necessarily high upside, arms. Leftwich was the Phillies' seventh-round pick last year and shows an average to slight above fastball and two secondary pitches, but will often look more like a future reliever than a rotation stalwart. Arauz is interesting; he had a poor year in the New York-Penn League last year, but is young and has good size. He was reportedly up to 94 with cut, and had a good spring, so it is worth watching to see if the Phillies have something with him. Watson and Gueller were the Phillies' first-round picks in 2012, and both have watched their careers go poorly in different ways. Gueller has lost all of his pre-draft velocity, now pitching more in the 88-91 range rather his pre-draft 92-94, touching 96. He has developed a good slider and solid changeup, as well as showing improving command, however his arsenal is now more that of a back-end starter. Watson, meanwhile, has regressed almost entirely due to injury and has essentially missed the last three seasons of developmental time. He has flashed some of his old promise with a fastball up to 94 and solid curveball, but his mechanics still scared many last year and he was very hittable.
Alejandro Arteaga, Kenny Koplove, Zach Morris, Robert Tasin, Jose Taveras, Alberto Tirado (26), Jacob Waguespack
Normally I would say to completely avoid thinking about Low-A relievers, but there are some interesting arms here, starting with Tirado. Tirado actually pitched the 2015 season at High-A, but he also walked just about every batter he saw there. The Phillies had talked of using him as a starter, but he will be a multi-inning reliever instead. At his best, he will show a fastball that sits 94-96 and can reach 100, a plus-plus slider that leaves your jaw on the floor, and an above-average changeup. His problem has been throwing strikes, which is why he is in Lakewood and not Reading. Koplove has major league bloodlines and solid stuff out of the bullpen. He has a deceptive delivery and a fastball up to 93 to go with a good curveball. This season is his first as a full-time pitcher, so there may be a bit more. Arteaga and Taveras both had arguments to be in the rotation, but find themselves in the bullpen with above-average fastballs and three-pitch repertoires. Neither shows overpowering upside, but could see a boost in short bursts. Waguespack, Morris, and Tasin represent three of the late-round/undrafted college arms the Phillies signed last year. None have overpowering stuff, but they put up good numbers in the GCL and Williamsport and profile as solid organizational relievers with a slight chance at more.
The Lakewood team this year has two of the brighter young potential stars in the system in Randolph and Kilome, and it does not suffer for talent after those two. The team is full of players from the past with big names who are looking to finally breakout and into the ranks of serious prospects in the system. The team should be very competitive and in the playoff hunt as well, as an older lineup and pitching staff give it a bit of protection from some of its more volatile talents.