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Unlocking the Keystone

J.P. Crawford will make up one half of the next Phillies middle infield. Who will complement him?

The graceful Darnell Sweeney is one of a handful of prospective second basemen in the Phillies' system
The graceful Darnell Sweeney is one of a handful of prospective second basemen in the Phillies' system
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Phillies farm system (and Major Leagues, for that matter) is becoming so loaded with near-ready prospects that daydreaming about future lineups seems to get easier by the day. A lackluster offense at the top level has certainly played its part in catalyzing those thoughts. For the most part, the answers to current vacancies at least seem known, but there is one glaring hole in the plan: The one that used to be occupied by Chase Utley and the one that will turn double plays with J.P. Crawford. We are, of course, speaking of second base.

Right now, that spot is occupied by Cesar Hernandez, who has been struggling to remain competent at the position for about a year now. The good news is that the minors are not devoid of talent. Far from it. But, like everything in baseball, nothing is guaranteed. That means we have to deal with a long parade of flawed players trying to stake their claim to the job; and claim the job is what they must do, because if you are a second baseman, the bench is an unforgiving place for players who lack the bat to be an impact pinch hitter and the glove to be a viable backup for shortstop.

So if we rule out Cesar, that leaves Freddy Galvis, among of guys currently in the Majors. Galvis has less contact and more power than Hernandez, but he would be a shortstop playing second base. As we saw in 2012 with Freddy, he is a real weapon defensively at second base. The problem is the bat is so marginal, that it is a tough sell to have him in an everyday role on a good team.

That moves us to Triple-A, where the prize of the Utley trade, Darnell Sweeney, awaits. Despite his prospect status, Sweeney is only eight months younger than Hernandez. Second base is still relatively new to him, and it shows, as he is an incredible athlete, but the footwork just doesn't always made sense. At the plate, Sweeney is a switch hitter with power and speed, but there is a lot of swing-and-miss in his game; swing-and-miss that Major League pitchers will exploit. Sweeney has a chance to be a regular at second base, but the kind of regular that hits .240-.250 with 10 HRs and 20 SBs while making some boneheaded plays with the leather.

Double-A holds Crawford's recent set of double play partners. Angelo Mora has not played as much second base this year as he has in the past, but the light-hitting-middle-infielder-turned-harder-hitting-utility-player offers an intriguing skill set. Mora's offensive turnaround is still in its early stages, but it does not seem entirely unsustainable in the early going. However, his glove both at second base and shortstop has been questionable in the past, at least when compared to other middle infielders in the system. The other middle infielder currently with Reading is former 2012 first-round pick (of the Dodgers) Jesmuel Valentin. Valentin, who came over in the Roberto Hernandez trade in 2014, shares a lot of the pitfalls of Hernandez. His biggest strength at the plate is working counts and making contact, but his lack of power is likely to make his walk rate collapse when facing Major League pitchers. Valentin is an accomplished defender at second, and has played every position but catcher in his career. His defensive versatility appears to be his path to the Majors, as his bat and lack of speed are simply not ideal for a regular.

Then, in High-A Clearwater, you have the system's prospect version of Freddy Galvis in Malquin Canelo: A glove-first, light-hitting shortstop who would have a subpar bat with a special glove at second base. In Lakewood, you have Josh Tobias, the Phillies' 10th-round pick in last year's draft out of the University of Florida. Tobias is an underdog story, a once-solid prospect who bombed in his junior year - leading him to go undrafted - followed by a bounceback senior year that put him back on the map. Tobias's tools are not loud, as his defense at second base is not going wow anyone and pro scouting reports don't leave a lot to be inspired by. That said, that does not mean that Tobias has no future, because players do exceed their raw abilities from time to time, but it is also important to know that the road is incredibly rarely traveled, and even more rare at second base where the margin for error is almost non-existent.

Those who have paid very close attention should know that I, of course, skipped over a certain player. That was on purpose, because the answer to many questions is the obvious one: The best prospect is not always the best Major League baseball player; things go wrong, players get hurt, players don't develop, players don't make adjustments, but in the end, the pure talent to play in the Major Leagues being present is the most important thing. With that, we turn our attention to the player in the system most likely to end up as their long-term second baseman: Scott Kingery.

Kingery was the Phillies' second round pick in the 2015 draft, and depending on whose opinions you value, he was either a huge steal or fair value at the pick. He was an undrafted center fielder out of high school who would then hit solidly as a freshman at the University of Arizona, then great as a sophomore before being one of the best hitters in the country as a junior during a transition to second base. The Phillies challenged him by dumping him right into full season ball last year, and the results were mixed, as he wore down under the weight of a long, combined season.

This year they sent him to Clearwater, and I get if you are not inspired by a .256/.337/.397 batting line. It is not a batting line that inspires parades, but parades are also not won by scouting the lines of 22-year-olds in High-A. What does inspire confidence is that Kingery has raised his walk rate this year while cutting his strikeout rate. He has decent pop for a middle infielder, and while it does not manifest in home runs, he was leading the Florida State League in doubles coming into Sunday. He has plus-to-plus-plus speed and has improved his base stealing instincts, going 21-for-24 on his attempts as a pro. Overall, Kingery does not project to be a star (few do), but unlike everyone else on this overview, he has the full package of tools to be a long-term answer at the position.

Industry favorites for Major League success tend to have the highest odds for a reason. Stats in the minor leagues can be informative and tell us some useful things, but it is important to not let them obscure what players actually are. Beneath hot streaks and icy-cold slumps lies a more patient truth that, given the proper time and care, will provide us all with a decent body of work upon which to judge these players. The above are no different; they are not exempt from the "will they/won't they" debate, and all are various levels of "close" to breaking into a big league lineup. The Phillies' depth is comforting in that, should any of these players fail to pan out as hoped, more chances remain to uncover a long-term keystone solution from within.