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2023 Phillies preview: infield prospects to keep an eye on

Hao Yu-Lee might be the team’s next big offensive hope

AZ Fall League: Surprise Saguaros at Peoria Javelinas Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our preview of the Phillies’ infield for 2023 by today checking in some prospects that will be scrutinized this season.

The strength of this team’s minor league system is not on the hitting side, particularly in the infield. These two bats are ones to watch, for this season and the years to come.

Infield prospect to watch in 2023: Carlos De La Cruz

Being tall is going to get you noticed in a lot of places. According to the CDC, the average American male is 5’9”, so anything at six feet or more is going to have people looking at you. When you’re built like 6’8” Carlos De La Cruz and can hit the ball as far as he can, you’re definitely going to have people notice you.

MILB: JUL 05 Gulf Coast League - GCL Braves at GCL Phillies East Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

De La Cruz was available to be selected during this most recent Rule 5 draft, yet teams passed him by despite the obvious tools he possesses. The power that he has is drool worthy, but it’s the hit tool that likely caused even rebuilding teams to hesitate. Put simply, he hasn’t shown much aptitude to hit. Yet he still has his fans in the prospect community that wonder what things will look like if he is able to make that hit tool work for him.

From Baseball Prospectus:

De La Cruz generates incredible bat speed and some really impressive exit velocities with his fast twitch and long levers, albeit at the risk of tremendous swing-and-miss. He improved greatly over the course of 2022 in identifying and not swinging through non-fastballs, continuing through a promotion to Double-A and in the Arizona Fall League. He still does it too much, and therefore is still fairly likely to not have enough hit tool for a true major-league regular role; the Phillies also have a poor track record finishing off this profile. But given he has some of the highest power upside in the minors and that there’s an improving chance, we’re back in on the skinny giant. He’s available in the MLB Rule 5 Draft this year, and could get taken as an intriguing gamble for a tanking team willing to let him ride the interstate for a year.

From Matt Winkelman:

The most likely outcome is that De La Cruz stalls out in AA or AAA, unable to make enough contact for a major league role. Maybe he makes just enough contact that he is sort of a 5th/OFer who can play first in a pinch who hits the occasional big home run. However, the underlying skills and athleticism means that any hit tool improvements are going to be magnified. It is a very low chance he becomes a star, but that 99th percentile outcome might be that he is a superstar.

You get the idea: if he hits, he’s could be a monster.

That’s the challenge facing the development team. Getting De La Cruz to be able to tap into that power is going to be one of the challenges they face as a group. If injuries happen to hit the team’s outfield this year, De La Cruz could force himself into the conversation for a promotion. After all, the current collection of possibilities that would exist ahead of him on the AAA depth chart aren’t anything to get excited about. The team has shown that they don’t mind promoting sub replacement level players to help for a short period of time since they’re much easier to retain if they’re put on waivers. Were they expose De La Cruz to waivers once an injured player comes back, there is almost no way a team wouldn’t take him.

That’s a topic for another day though. For now, he represents maybe the highest upside bat the team has that is as close to the majors as he is. Keep an eye on him.

Infield prospect to help in 2024 and beyond: Hao Yu-Lee

The Phillies aren’t good at developing hitters. Until they prove this statement to be false, it’s the assumption that they’re having trouble turning prospects into solid major league contributors outside of those drafted high in the first round (Alec Bohm, Bryson Stott).

Lee looks like the best chance the team has to turn a late round pick into something resembling a solid regular in the majors.

Lee has always been known for hitting the ball and hitting the ball hard. In 2022, Lee had an average exit velocity of 86.4 miles per hour on 182 balls in play.* His max exit velocity on that balls in play was 104.8 miles per hour.

*numbers courtesy of Matt Winkelman

Lee represents the best shot the team has right now at having a legit batting prospect that people on the outside fall in love with. The numbers posted above are numbers that would put him with some of the better hitters in the game. While one would hope to see the average exit velocity creep up a bit as he gets a bit older, the max exit velocity shows that the ability is there. He’ll just need to grow into it a little more.

Defensively, it looks as though they’ll keep him at shortstop as long as possible before shifting him to either second or third base. From Winkelman again:

Defensively, the Phillies have moved Lee around the infield, but he does not really have the range or arm for shortstop, and the arm is suspect at third base as well. He should be able to play a solid second base, but is unlikely to ever be a real asset there. The defensive position will put pressure on the bat, and that is where the real sort of risk is with Lee. There is a high probability, for a player of Lee’s age and experience, that Lee makes enough contact. He is going to need to have that contact come with probably 15-20 home runs a year, and a good amount of line drive doubles as well, in order to be an above average player. There is a chance he can be solid, but not elite, across all three triple slash categories, and that is probably good enough to be a first division regular and occasional all-star.

If this is the kind of player Lee can become, that’s a solid win for the team’s player development system. Lee likely won’t be ready at any point to contribute to the Phillies in 2023, but looking at 2024 and past that, one can start to get excited about how Lee can make contributions at the big league level.