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February 26, 2016

Fruits of Phillies' rebuild flourishing this spring

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022616_Quinn-Crawford_Phillies Ryan Lawrence/PhillyVoice

Prospects Roman Quinn and J.P. Crawford during 2016 Phillies Spring Training in Clearwater, Fla.

CLEARWATER, Fla. – On Major League Baseball’s trade deadline day in 2009, July 31, a future Hall of Fame pitcher took the mound for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs at Coca-Cola Park.

Pedro Martinez, though, was just making a pit stop in Allentown en route to joining the Phillies rotation for another World Series run. He left behind a Pigs team that had already been decimated: two days earlier Lehigh Valley lost its catcher (Lou Marson), it’s shortstop (Jason Donald) and it’s most talented starting pitcher, non-Pedro Martinez division (Carlos Carrasco) when the major league team sent them across the ballpark and into the Columbus Clippers clubhouse.

The trio was shipped to the Cleveland Indians, along with right-handed pitcher Jason Knapp, in a prospect package that brought Cliff Lee to the Phillies. The deal worked out well, of course, (Lee was at his best in the 2009 World Series) but it obviously left the Pigs roster more than a little less talented and many of its players (like outfielder Michael Taylor, who would be traded less than five months later) looking over their shoulders, wondering if they were next.

Flash forward six summers. The exact opposite scenario unfolded last August for the Reading Fightin Phils.

Nick Williams and Jake Thompson were immediate upgrades to the top of the lineup and top of the rotations, respectively. Nick Pivetta and Jimmy Cordero bolstered the pitching staff, too, as Reading was well on its way to the Eastern League playoffs.

“They just sparked us,” rising Reading catcher Andrew Knapp said Friday in Clearwater, following the Phillies workout. “We were good, but we added those guys and it elevated us above everyone else. We were that much better with those guys. Now you add Mark (Appel) and (Vincent) Velasquez and the other guys coming in, it’s fun.”

Welcome to the Phillies spring training clubhouse, 2016. 

Ryan Lawrence/PhillyVoice

Phillies prospects Nick Williams and J.P. Crawford.

Chase Utley has vacated his corner locker stall and Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee aren’t across the doorway, either. But Knapp, Williams and J.P. Crawford are grouped together in the rollaway locker stalls in the middle of the room. Roman Quinn is right behind them, a few locker stalls down from Jorge Alfaro, Appel, and Thompson, too.

More than a couple years removed from being former contenders trying to pry the window back open by populating the clubhouse with veterans on the back end of their careers, the Phillies roster is brimming with the kind of top young talent that fills up prospect lists. The Phillies, in fact, had seven players, more than any other organization, in’s Top 100 prospect list released late last month.

Quinn, still baby-faced and just 22-years-old, is the longest-tenured Phillies prospect among the group. He was drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft, back when the Phillies were the best team in baseball.

He’s seen the transition unfold in the minor leagues.

“It actually feels good,” said Quinn, who checked into Clearwater two months ago to get a head start on 2016. “We know the organization is going in the right direction. Adding prospects like they are – Nick is a great bat. And he can really play the outfield, too. And Mark, I faced him in the Fall League. He has some good stuff. We’re just headed in the right direction, man. I’m excited.”

“We have a lot of young guys that know how to play the game and play the game well... I can’t wait to see what we can do in the future.”

Quinn is back to full speed after a tear in his hip flexor cost him the second half of 2015. He is healthy and eager to put together a full season in 2016 (an Achilles’ and wrist injury shortened his two previous seasons).

While rehabbing late last summer, Quinn got to meet another one of the team’s new talented prospects, Alfaro, who was rehabbing his own leg injury.

“That’s my mans, man,” Quinn said. “We’re real good friends. I saw him play in (the Instructional League in September). He can throw it and he can swing it for sure.”

One camp observer and former major leaguer watched Alfaro take batting practice recently and said he's never seen anyone with better opposite field power. 

Take it from the few prospects who were already in the organization 16 months ago, when the Phillies first embarked on the rebuild. Look at the big picture from their perspective, watching new teammates arrive and instantly improve their teams in the minor leagues.

Of course, they envision the same boost when they’re eventually in the big leagues and welcoming the arrivals of their fellow prospects, too.

“We have a lot of young guys that know how to play the game and play the game well,” said Crawford, rated as one of the top five prospects in baseball by just about every publication this winter. “I’ve been playing against some of them for a long time, so it’s great we’re on the same team now. I can’t wait to see what we can do in the future.”

Phillies fans who have made the early trek to Clearwater already could get a sneak preview of what the 2017 major league roster could look like this weekend. Manager Pete Mackanin said he plans to play the younger guys in big league camp in the exhibition game vs. the University of Tampa on Sunday at Bright House Field.

Since he’s been on the big league coaching staff, Mackanin simply hasn’t seen guys like Quinn, Crawford, Knapp, Williams and Alfaro in person in game action and wants to get a look before they eventually head across the Carpenter Clubhouse and into minor league camp next month.

“I’m anxious to see them,” Mackanin said.

Mackanin’s five words could probably sum up the feeling of the fan base, too. It might not come early in 2016, but barring injury and performance, they could all surely be on the 2017 Opening Day roster.

“It’s a great opportunity for all of us,” Crawford said.

“It’s fun,” said Knapp, who has been working with Carlos Ruiz and Cameron Rupp to improve his receiving skills this month. “It proves the organization is rebuilding, and it’s all starting to happen. We’ve got a really good core of young guys. And I think we can all learn how to play together and learn how to win and take that as we go up.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21