Triple-A is supposed to be the waiting room for players who have seen their Major League dreams wither and die. Or, at least, that is what we have been led to believe over the past few seasons. And certainly, the 2016 IronPigs have their share of guys looking to get one more taste of the Majors. But the normal cadre of Quad-A players are joined by a an amalgam of very good prospects, some younger players on the fringes of carving out a major league role, and a couple of actual major league level talents who just could not crack the Phillies' opening day roster this season.
Top Hitting Prospect: Nick Williams
Williams was the prize of the Cole Hamels deal - or at least he was before Jerad Eickhoff started exerting his will on Major League Baseball - hearkens back to the best and worst of Phillies' drafts of old. He is super athletic and, for the first few years of his career, completely lacked baseball skills. Those baseball skills arrived last year, but by no means is Williams a finished product. At the plate, he has a great feel for hard contact all over the field with a very quick bat, but he is still working on his approach and he hacks at pitches still. Williams has plus or better raw power and is still tapping into it, but he could easily hit 20-plus home runs a year at his peak. In the field he is a center fielder playing outfield corners and the defense looks like it. On the basepaths he has speed, but has not been a great base stealer and has made it a goal to improve in 2016.
Top Pitching Prospect: Jake Thompson
Thompson is settling into his third organization, and at this point the industry has a good feel for what he is. There were some that thought he might sit mid-90s in his prime, but it appears he will be more 89-93, touching 94-95, with heavy use of a two-seam fastball at the bottom of that range. His slider is still a wipeout pitch with two plane movement that allows him to miss bats for righties and lefties. Thompson's two other pitches, his curveball and changeup, are a step behind his other offerings, but Thompson has confidence in them and they have flashed improvement. When he is on his game, Thompson will pound the strike zone, missing bats with the slider and using his fastball to get weak contact. Like many young pitchers, he still has a lot to work on when it comes to fastball command and he can lose the zone and miss up at times. The prevailing notion is that, ultimately, Thompson is more of a middle rotation workhorse than an ace in waiting, but he could be a very effective MLB pitcher soon.
Two Others To Watch: Darnell Sweeney and Tommy Joseph
Mark Appel, Zach Eflin, and Andrew Knapp are all better prospects than Sweeney, and there are a slew of players who have more of a Major League future than Joseph, but that is what makes the two of them so appealing. Sweeney is interesting because he has a spot on a major league team, but it is not a conventional spot as his list of playable positions is now 2B/LF/CF. Sweeney has power and speed, but does not have great contact and his instincts are not fantastic. If he can hit a little bit, he could fill multiple roles on a major league bench and give flexibility to a team currently sacrificing roster spots for a first base platoon. Speaking of first base, that is where Tommy Joseph has settled after three years of constant injuries. He finally had a fully healthy offseason and got into much better shape. Joseph has lots of raw power and so far this spring and season he has tapped into that power. He will need to just mash the baseball to even get a look at displacing Darin Ruf and Ryan Howard, but a year ago we were wondering if he might be out of baseball.
The number in parentheses next to a player's name indicates their rank in my Top 50
Andrew Knapp (9), J.P. Arencibia
To say that Andrew Knapp destroyed Reading might be an understatement, even with the notable enhancing effects of Reading's park. Knapp has improved his approach greatly since signing, and that has allowed his simple, clean swing from both sides to play up. Knapp does not have big raw power, but he hits the ball hard and often enough that he is going to hit a decent amount of home runs. Behind the plate, Knapp is still a work in progress; it can be hard to separate how many issues are due to his lack of experience simply because of missed time, and how many might persist. His arm is one liability that won't be improved too much, but he has cleaned up his release to get slightly better. His receiving and framing have improved, but are still poor by relative standards. He is athletic enough that there is reason to believe that he can improve enough to be passable. Meanwhile, at this point in his career, Arencibia has become a Triple-A journeyman and mentor.
Carlos Alonso, Taylor Featherston, Ryan Jackson, Tommy Joseph, Angelys Nina, Brock Stassi
Stassi matched Knapp and Rhys Hoskins with the bat among hitters in the organization last year, but he remains a bit of a tough fit at first base. He has a good approach and feel for contact, but he has more fringe average to average power, even with his recent change in swing. Like all first basemen, he will just need to keep hitting. Joining Stassi and Joseph are a plethora of infielders who are all highly flawed. Featherston is on the 40-man roster, but was one of the worst Major Leaguers in the game last year, and was a poor fielder this spring. Jackson, Nina, and Alonso are all career minor leaguers, with Alonso having the best offensive tools and Jackson being the best defender due to his ability to play shortstop. Nina is situated somewhere in between the two.
David Lough, Cameron Perkins (43), Darnell Sweeney (23), Will Venable, Nick Williams (2)
Lough and Venable are the same players they were this spring, both fringe Major Leaguers trying to prove that they are better options than Cedric Hunter. They should put up decent numbers and play good defense, which may earn them the opportunity to prove their worth with the big club. Perkins gives off Hunter Pence vibes, where everything about him is a bit unconventional and goofy. He added a leg kick last year that added some power to his game, but his bat is still questionable as an everyday player in the Majors, as he does not walk and his power is more average than plus. He can handle both outfield corners and, despite a goofy motion, has a plus arm. Overall, he could be a fourth/fifth outfield alternative to the minor league fodder teams bring in every year.
Mark Appel (4), David Buchanan, Zach Eflin (10), Adam Morgan, Jake Thompson (3)
Appel is going to get a lot of press this year because of his pedigree. At his best, he is similar to Thompson; he throws a bit harder and has better feel for a changeup, but he lacks any deception in his delivery. Appel appears to have gone back to throwing more two-seam fastballs at the bottom of the strikezone, usually sitting in the low-to-mid 90s. His slider is a very good pitch and he will throw it to righties and lefties. His changeup is solid, but lacks consistency. Once again, command and consistency is the key, because Appel has the raw stuff still to be a good starting pitcher, but that's a familiar refrain. Buchanan is a known quantity at this point, a Quad-A starter who can have success when everything works and be a disaster when it does not. Eflin is a bit of a mystery; late last year, we saw him go back to his four-seam fastball more, which gave him a mid-90s weapon to attack hitters with in addition to his low 90s two-seam fastball. He also added a loopy curveball, which is already better than his short slider, but is not a bat-missing pitch yet. He has shown good feel for a changeup in the past, but it has not been an effective pitch for him lately. Morgan had a great spring, narrowly losing out on a Major League job to a superior pitcher. Morgan's stuff has continued to improve since his injury, but it is not back to where it was when he was a top prospect. He will almost certainly get another chance at the majors, but until then he needs to work on tightening his slider and improving his cutter and changeup so that he can miss more bats.
Andrew Bailey, Luis Garcia, Bobby LaFromboise, Edward Mujica, Colton Murray, Reinier Roibal
If you hated the Phillies' bullpen this spring, then you have already shielded your eyes looking at this list. Garcia has big stuff and no clue where it is going. Bailey looks good one day and washed up the next. LaFromboise is a deceptive lefty, which is a nice thing to have lying around, but you really only need one. Mujica is a fastball/splitter pitcher who has not really fooled a competent batter in over a year. Murray is a generic middle reliever, throwing relatively hard and showing a good curveball, but there is nothing there to bail him out when he struggles. Roibal is a solid minor league long man who will get his fastball up to 95 and has usable secondary pitches, but like most of these pitchers, he has little margin for error or off days. Collectively, this group has the chance to be quite good, as many have had Major League success. The pitfall is that there is also a chance they just implode nightly. The prize, should any succeed, is a Major League job in another volatile bullpen one level up.
Usually, Lehigh Valley is the least interesting affiliate, with maybe a single notable prospect or two, but the 2016 version has real prospects and could receive more as the season goes on. Some of the players are on the cusp of the Majors, others still need a year to work everything out. Either way, it should be a fun year in AAA.
*At the time of this writing, the IronPigs are down a man on their roster following the promotion of Elvis Araujo.