September 20, 2016
As the Phillies play out the final two weeks of their schedule, a roster full of 20-somethings has skewed even younger of late.
The oldest player in the regular lineup is 27-year-old catcher Cameron Rupp. The only players over 30 on the roster are little-used reliever David Hernandez, little-used utility infielders Andres Blanco and Emmanuel Burris, third-string catcher A.J. Ellis, and former MVP and soon-to-be first-time free agent Ryan Howard.
The kids – some of whom started in the big leagues this year, others in Triple-A Lehigh Valley or Double-A Reading – are getting an opportunity and everyone is on notice. Including a trio of players who hope to be a part of the next wave of young talent to infiltrate the big league roster.
Double-A Reading sluggers Dylan Cozens and Rhys Hoskins and Triple-A Lehigh Valley right-hander Ben Lively were at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday to be presented with the Paul Owens Award for the organization’s best minor league hitter(s) and pitcher in 2016.
All three couldn’t help but envision themselves in red pinstripes rather than the sports coats and ties they wore inside the home dugout during batting practice.
“Down the lines,” said Cozens, who hit 40 home runs in 134 games at Reading this year, “it seems pretty nice.”
Cozens, the Phillies second round pick in 2012, won the Joe Bauman Home Run Award as the player with the most home runs in all of the minor leagues. He’ll receive the trophy, along wth an $8,000 check ($200 for each home run, per Bauman Award rules) at the Winter Meetings in December.
Come next September, Cozens, who will be added to the 40-man roster this winter, expects to be hitting home runs in the major leagues instead of the minor leagues.
“It’s not my call,” he said. “But if I play as good as I know I can, I think it should happen for sure.”
Cozens, who had sunglasses to go with his blazer and tie on an overcast afternoon in South Philly, does not lack for bravado following his breakout season. And it’s not hard to understand why, after slashing .276/.350/.591 at Double-A, with 21 stolen bases (in 22 attempts) to go along with those 40 homers.
But Cozens, an outfielder, is not without his faults, nor is he major league-ready: he also struck out 186 times in 586 plate appearances this year.
“For me, I feel like being young, it comes with experience,” Cozens said. “Being as big as I am it’s not like I have to sell out and swing as hard as I can to hit it out of the ballpark. So I do think I can cut down on the strikeouts. That being said, it’s not going to be a focus.
“It’s going to be more a matter of not chasing pitches out of the zone because if I do that I’m not going to strike out as much. And as long as I get my pitch and put it in play and not foul it off, it’s going to cut down on the strikeouts.”
The 23-year-old Hoskins, a first baseman and former fifth-round pick (2014), ranked second in the Eastern League in strikeouts, with 125 in 589 plate appearances. But he also hit .281/.377/.566 with 38 home runs.
Manager Pete Mackanin, who has been searching for offense all season, is eager to see both this spring (even if neither figure to be on the roster in the first half of 2017).
“When you have those kinds of years, you have to evaluate: Were those for real or not?” Mackanin said Tuesday. “Obviously, I don't like the high strikeouts. That's obviously something that has to be looked at. But if you are going to strike out a lot and hit 40 home runs and drive in 120 runs, then I'll take it. But if you are going to hit .240 with a high strikeout ratio, then that's not going to work.”
Going back there and seeing other guys get moved up … that kind of kicked it into another gear for me. I was like, ‘I know I can be up there with those guys and excel just as good as them.’
Mackanin made a point to mention that Yankees rookie catcher phenom Gary Sanchez spent parts of three seasons at Double-A.
“That's the thing about all these guys that we always have to be continually patient with,” Mackanin said.
Still, when the big league setting is right before your very eyes, and you’re being honored with the most prestigious minor league award in the organization, it’s easy to see the real prize isn’t very far away.
“It’s pretty surreal, it’s pretty cool,” said Hoskins, who plans to work on improving his defense and fine-tuning his approach in the Dominican Winter League. “Starting to see these guys here and guys we’ve played against coming up through the minor leagues that are with other organizations in the big leagues. Hopefully we’re next.”
The 24-year-old Lively, who went 18-5 with a 2.69 ERA in 28 starts between Double-A and Triple-A this season. Lively was acquired in the second of several trades the Phillies made in the last two years that brought in a bounty of young pitcher, coming from the Cincinnati Reds for Marlon Byrd on New Year’s Eve of 2014.
Since he’s arrived, Lively has seen several of those pitchers promoted to Triple-A and the big leagues. He began his second season at Double-A this year after an uninspiring first season in the Phillies organization (4.13 ERA in 25 starts at Reading in 2015).
“Kind of a reality check,” Lively said of starting 2016 at Double-A. “Going back there and seeing other guys get moved up … that kind of kicked it into another gear for me. I was like, ‘I know I can be up there with those guys and excel just as good as them.’ They pitched great the past couple of years and that’s why they’re up here.”
Ryan Howard was out of the lineup for the third straight game after dealing with swelling in his left knee over the weekend. With the Phillies scheduled to face left-hander Chris Sale on Wednesday, Mackanin went with the training staff’s recommendation and decided to give Howard a couple of extra days.
He expects Howard to play when the Phillies begin a seven-game road trip in New York on Thursday, and then again when the team returns to Citizens Bank Park for the final three games of the season.
“He's available to pinch-hit and obviously to play, but I wouldn't want (the knee) to blow up,” Mackanin said. “That wouldn't be helpful to us or him.”