The Lakewood Six Or Seven (Or Eight)
When last we spoke, I mentioned how enamored I’d become of the Lakewood lineup. At the beginning of 2014, it was pretty clear that there was a good amount of talent inhabiting the low-A roster, led by 2013 first round pick J.P. Crawford. As the year has gone on, a couple guys have forced their way to the fore, and a couple have lagged behind, but the ceilings of a few remain so intriguing that it’s hard not to be interested. So let’s talk (for 1800 words or so, apparently), about Crawford, Carlos Tocci, Dylan Cozens, Andrew Pullin, Zach Green, Samuel Hiciano, and Andrew Knapp. And I’ll even throw in some Willians Astudillo, just for fun.
I’ll start with the headliner. J.P. Crawford reached Lakewood last summer via the double jump from the Gulf Coast League. He started this year slow, then got very hot, but has slumped lately, OPSing just .555 in 14 June games, after putting up a .969 in May. Still, his 134 wRC+ is impressive enough for one of the ten or so youngest regulars in the league. His bat being firmly entrenched in the weeds right now isn’t stopping the club from moving him aggressively – Jim Salisbury reports he’s being promoted to A+ Clearwater Wednesday, after participating in the South Atlantic League (SAL) All-Star Game tonight. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him fight for the Phils’ starting shortstop spot out of camp in 2016, though the Super-Two cutoff sometime in June that year seems more reasonable.
You may have noticed I used a plus (+) stat in there – I always try do so when I’m evaluating minor leaguers, and I also try to make mention of the guy’s age. Plus (+) factors for the league, and with so much variation between hitting environments, quoting a simple OPS or something like wOBA as more than a first glance can be very misleading. And knowing that Crawford is 34% better than the league is nice, but two of the top five South Atlantic League performers by OPS this year are 24 years old. Crawford is 19 in a league full of a lot of 20/21-year-old former high schools picks and international signees, and second tier 2013 college draftees, so that 134 looks even nicer. And as Paul Boye pointed out on Twitter Sunday, he’ll be only the second 19 year-old in the Florida State League when he arrives Wednesday, so anything he does there on the positive side this year is just further proof that Ruben, Marti and Co. managed to take a good one this time around. Weird, I know.
After Crawford, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and the flame out risk for any of the rest of these guys is great. The most touted guy behind J.P. has been Carlos Tocci. The rumors are true, folks. Tocci is pretty skinny. Andrew Albert from The Daily News had a nice piece on Tocci and his attempts to put on muscle, the gist being that he’s working on getting stronger. I should hope so. He’s yet to hit a professional home run, (don’t hold your breath), but his OPS is sitting about 115 points higher than where he finished 2013, and although he’s repeating the same league, he remains the fifth youngest position player with over 100PAs. His fielding and instincts have been praised by scouts, even as the same guys look at thin shoulders and wonder whether any of this extra muscle we’re told he needs will actually fit on his DJ Qualls-esque frame. If he can continue to improve at the plate, or at least not slump through the second half of the year, he’ll see Clearwater in 2015 and hopefully be big league ready, muscles willing, by 2018.
Dylan Cozens is the anti-Tocci. He’s a very large 20 year-old man, listed at 6’6″, 235lbs. He had a nice sophomore year in 2013 at Williamsport, putting up a 146 wRC+, tying for fifth in the league in home runs, and finishing in the Top 15 in OPS, slugging and walks, all while stealing double digits in a half-season league. This season has not been as kind to Cozens, as he’s sitting on just an 89 wRC+. He has eight home runs, but his walks are down and his Ks are up a bit. He’s already got 11 steals and been caught just twice, proving that he’s not a complete statue out there, but a man that big is going to have a harder time with elite catchers as he progresses levels. No scouting that I have seen expects him to survive in the outfield at anything like an average defensive level, and Eric Longenhagen put an extreme ceiling of a 40 on the bat last fall, but with plus-plus (70) raw power in the same report. So if you close your left eye and squint really hard and tilt your head just so, Cozens looks like a league average corner outfielder, but really, he’s more likely to be forced to first base before he ever makes the big leagues. Luckily for him, there’s a spot opening up in two and a half years, as the incumbent is Ryan Howard, who can’t possibly be resigned, (Amaro’s not that Amaro, is he?), and the only real threat to hold the spot ahead of Cozens will be then 31-year-old Darin Ruf. 2017 might be Cozens’ year, if he can get to his ceiling at the plate.
Andrew Pullin was an outfielder in high school, but the Phils saw a second baseman in there, and they began that transition the summer he was drafted along with Cozens and Green. He’s been playing second exclusively since the end of that season, and the bat has been steady enough for a guy working very hard on his defense. He’s under league average thus far in 2014, after playing to a 108 wRC+ last summer, though he does have a couple more homers than he had last year in a similar number of PAs, and his walk rate is back up to a decent 7.6%. He may take a little longer to put it all together, as the defense is still a work in progress. Like Cozens, he’d be similarly blocked by an incumbent, though who knows what Chase Utley will be doing by 2018. He could be an astronaut or solar energy tycoon or on the board of the ASPCA for all we know. And that’s just if he retires after 2017. Imagine what he could do if he leaves a year earlier. World domination is not out of the question. Watch out, Mister Putin! …wait, what was I talking about…oh Lakewood guys…right. Sorry.
Zach Green is a slugging third baseman who led the New York Penn League in homers a year ago. Green strikes out a lot, (over 29% last year), and there have been some negative reports on his bat speed and pitch recognition. He started slowly this year and then went down with a hip injury and is just getting back into action, but he showed a little bit of a positive turn in his strikeout rate early on, over a still-small sample of PAs. I look forward to the day when he hits four home runs and strikes out five times in a double header. This will totally happen, but whether it happens in the big leagues is yet to be determined.
Andy Knapp is also an interesting case right now because of injury. First off, I had been calling him “Andrew” since he was drafted, but now he has “Andy” up on Twitter. I don’t know, I think Andrew’s tougher, but maybe that’s not what he’s going for. Also on Twitter, he’s got this mustache…it’s not quite Kyle Simon, but I’m digging it. Anyway, Knapp came into Williamsport last year as a second round pick, and put up about an extra base hit every ten PAs. He developed some elbow trouble that limited him to DHing much of the year, and had to have Tommy John Surgery in the off-season. He came back a few weeks ago and was not hitting at Clearwater. He was demoted to Lakewood – as of last week he’s back to catching in games, and the bat’s shown signs of life. Already 22, he’s a bit old for the league, and questions remain about his defense – whether he’ll be able to develop into a respectable backstop will greatly affect his ceiling.
Speaking of…22 year-old Willians Astudillo wasn’t originally on my list of guys to talk about, and he was barely on the radar this off-season, after spending 2013 rehabbing from knee surgery. But the guy can hit, and despite the build of a second-string high school right guard, he managed to get a mention on BA’s Hot Sheet earlier this year. He’s a big contact, little power type, with a (historically high, for him) 5.3% K Rate to go with his 4.9% walk rate, an improvement over 2012 when he drew one walk in 153 PAs in the Gulf Coast League. ONE WALK in two and a half months!! He’s been slowly working his way back behind the plate to let his knee settle in, and if he can rake like he’s been and catch 30-40 times a year, he may very well be a big league backup. I’d love to see some scouting on his catching before deciding what I think of him, and with Knapp in place, Willians may be hard for scouts to see.
Which brings us, finally, to the diamond in the rough, as far as I’m concerned. I am too high on Samuel Hiciano. I see it, but I can’t contain it. Just 20 years old, Hiciano is the same age as the Cozens, Pullin, Green group, and after a double jump from the Dominican Summer League in 2012, his power really showed last year at Williamsport. He hit just two fewer home runs than Dylan Cozens in nearly 100 fewer PAs, while fighting a power-sapping wrist injury that Mitch Rupert documented here. His K Rate was bad – 24.7%, though not so bad that it can’t play if he works with plate discipline, as he did last year, drawing walks at an 11.4% clip. His wRC+ was an impressive 143. This year, his walk rate has slowed to 5%, but he’s still above average offensively for the league. As Eric said earlier this year in his Top Ten “Others”, he’s got work to do to make his bat play in a corner outfield spot, but I can be easily baited by in-game power, and Hiciano’s got me on the hook right now.
So, all that being said, what do I think is really the likely outcome for this group of guys? One big league starter/potential star in J.P. Crawford, another big league regular or two out of the next group of Tocci, Cozens and Pullin, and three (or four) guys who if things break reasonably right, could turn into solid contributors as well.
It’s a stretch to suggest that a large group of prospects coming up at the same time will all hit their ceilings. It just doesn’t happen. Guys get hurt. Guys miss AA breaking balls. Guys put on weight (or detrimentally do not, as the case may be). To expect this group to become the next great starting eight for the Phillies is unrealistic, but to expect them to contribute to the core of the next contender is not. If there’s a playoff run from 2017-2021, chances are a handful of these guys will be a big part of it.