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May 01, 2015

By a mile, Reading Fightins are most intriguing team in Phillies' farm system

Manager Dusty Wathan’s starting rotation ensures that there is an interesting prospect on the bump every night

My colleague did almost all of the heavy lifting, having to sell both Lehigh Valley and Lakewood respectively. There are undoubtedly some talented players on those rosters that could play into the Phillies’ future plans like Maikel Franco up in Allentown, but Mullin was essentially the fullback that has to meet the middle linebacker in hole or the big man forced to set picks off the ball to free a shooter. He was tasked with doing the dirty work, and not the satisfying type that Norm MacDonald and Artie Lange specialized in. 

Assigned with writing about the Reading Fightin Phils, I feel like Emmitt Smith after Moose Johnston opened up a huge running lane or Ray Allen after Big Baby Davis laid the wood on some poor defender. As far as I’m concerned, this is Easy Street.

For a farm system that is generally thought to be below average — Baseball Prospectus has it ranked 20th, ESPN (Insider Only) viewed it as 25th, and Baseball America slotted it at 21st, just to mention a few of the well-known publications — there’s plenty on the field in Reading to hold your interest. Great starting rotation? Check. The only guy in the minor leagues who can challenge Billy Hamilton on the basepaths? Check. The top youngster in the system and someone Keith Law ranked as the seventh-best prospect in all of baseball? Well, hopefully at some point. That pesky oblique has to heal first.

Anyway you slice it, Reading is the cream of the crop within the Phillies system. Here's a closer look at the Fightin Phils, their best players and some of the best days this season to make the drive up to Berks County to watch them play.

The Rotation

1. Aaron Nola: 21 years old, RHP, 2014 First-Round Pick (7th Overall), 24.2 IP, 2-2, 2.55 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 18-2 K/BB

2. Jesse Biddle: 23 years old, LHP, 2010 First-Round Pick (27th Overall), 21.1 IP, 3-0, 3.38 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 19-7 K/BB

3. Zach Eflin: 21 years old, RHP, 2012 First-Round Pick (33rd Overall), 15.2 IP, 2-0, 0.00, ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 7-3 K/BB

4. Tom Windle: 23 years old, LHP, 2013 Second-Round Pick (56th Overall), 18.0 IP, 0-1, 5.00 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 16-5 K/BB

5. Ben Lively: 23 years old, RHP, 2013 Fourth-Round Pick (135th Overall), 19.0 IP, 1-0, 1.42 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 15-6 K/BB

Ruben Amaro, Jr. probably waited at minimum a year too long to pull the trigger on a Jimmy Rollins trade, but he was at least able to acquire a couple of arms that added pitching depth (Windle and Eflin) to a top-heavy system in exchange for the franchise’s all-time hit king. Shortly after, Lively came over from Cincinnati on New Year’s Eve in the Marlon Byrd trade. None of the three project to be needle movers, but the consensus seemed to be that Amaro made the best of his own bad situation. Here’s how MLB Pipeline’s Jonathan Mayo summed up the two trades when we chatted with him this past February:

I think they did OK, but not great. Given that they waited as long as they did to make these trades, I guess it was the best they could do. They weren’t getting guys at the height of their value, obviously.

Mayo also pointed out that all three newly acquired players have the chance to pitch in a big-league rotation. Even if Reading doesn’t have a projected No. 2 starter at the major-league level, all five guys are still legit prospects. That’s pretty cool! Matt Winkelman, a great Twitter follow and someone who knows a more about the Phillies farm system than anyone with the possible exception of director of player development Joe Jordan, individually ranked the members of the rotation 2nd, 5th, 6th, 11th, and 12th in the organization this offseason. That speaks to the previous glaring lack of depth after the “Big Three,” which of course includes Nola.

Point is, the Reading rotation is much more important to the Phillies’ future than the Phillies rotation, especially if/when Amaro cashes Cole Hamels in. Until one of the five starters gets injured, you’re guaranteed to watch somebody of note on the bump when purchasing a ticket at FirstEnergy Stadium. Considering my jinxing powers, you better hurry before one of them is on the disabled list. It should happen anytime now. No seriously, they're screwed. My apologies.

They’ve been excellent as a group to start the year, even good enough to earn a “You killed it!” from T.J. Lavin. That’s what happens when you currently have a collective 2.55 ERA. Nola has the reputation as a “safe prospect,” which is sort of a backhanded compliment because it also implies that his stuff isn’t “ace material.” While that’s probably true, there’s still a lot to like here. As his strikeout-to-walk ratio shows, his control is excellent and the fastball generally sits in the low-90’s with late life. Nola also possesses an above-average slider (there’s some disagreement on whether it’s just a curveball thrown from a three-quarter arm slot, which you can see clearly in the picture above). He good.

Biddle showed major flashes a couple of years ago, but his last season was marred by injuries (a concussion, mainly). For him, walks are something to keep an especially close eye on. Eflin’s innings are down because he got ejected early in a game for throwing behind an opposing hitter, but his start has been super encouraging. He’s reportedly generating a ton of weak contact. Windle might have the highest ceiling and possibly the best pure stuff of the new guys, but his slider might eventually be best suited for the bullpen. He has been throwing a lot of ground balls to begin the season. Lively relies on deception and a funky delivery, which might become a problem when facing more advanced hitters. For now, though, the minor leagues haven’t caught up yet.

Of all positional groupings in the system with maybe the possible exception of the Phillies bullpen (and even then, not really), the Reading rotation is the most exciting to watch. As for the most exciting player…

PLAYER TO WATCH

Roman Quinn, CF

2014 STATS (High-A, Clearwater) – 327 AB, 51 R, 10 2B, 3 3B, 7 HR, 36 RBI, 36 BB, 80 K, 32 SB, .257/.343/.370

2015 STATS – (Double-A Reading) – 75 AB, 19 R, 5 2B, 3 3B, 2 HR, 7 RBI, 5 BB, 19 K, 9 SB, .347/.388/.573

As you can see, the 21-year-old speed demon is raking to start the season. Blessed with a legitimate 80 speed tool on the 20-80 scouting scale, this guy wreaks havoc on the bases when he’s basically reaching safely four times out of ten. After tearing his Achilles in 2013, Quinn has regained almost all of his speed, something he utilizes to great effect both in the outfield and on the basepaths. This is pre-injury video, but take a look at him flying around the diamond. He's quicker than Brandon Graham with the block button on Twitter:

Quinn might be due for a slight regression at the plate. The optimist would hold this is the first time in a while that he’s fully healthy, and it should be fun to monitor his continued development as a switch-hitter regardless. Defensively, scouts generally like Quinn a lot more back in his natural center field position than at shortstop, a transition made possible by the presence of J.P. Crawford.

Speaking of Crawford, he’s the unquestioned top prospect in the Phils system and the guy you’ve likely heard the most about. We’ll write plenty of words about him this season as he works his way back from a strained left oblique. If everything goes according to plan, the 20-year-old will be in Reading at some point this season.


DID YOU KNOW?

Phillies history

The top two single-season home run hitters in Reading history are currently on the Phillies roster: Darin “Babe” Ruf (38, 2012) and Ryan Howard (37, 2004). In the Fightin Phils’ 48-year affiliation with the Phillies, they’ve won the Eastern League title four times (1968, 1973, 1995, and co-champs in 2001). Former Philie Mickey Morandini is currently the Fightin Phils' hitting coach.

And how about this as a fun fact? When I went to a Reading game as a kid, Pete Rose, Jr. smoked a foul ball that was about an inch away from taking my head off. You can’t get that type of information anywhere else!

Fun fact

Reading calls itself “Baseballtown,” which is not only a nod to its long baseball history all the way back to the late 1800’s but also a charity dedicated to growing the sport at the youth level in the city. Here’s Bunbino, Baseballtown’s mascot, which if we’re being honest, is the major reason I brought any of this up:

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HOW TO WATCH

At the park

FirstEnergy Stadium - 1900 Centre Avenue/RT 61 South, Reading, PA 19605

Opened: 1951 | Capacity: 9,000

Directions | Stadium Guide | Full Schedule

BEST PROMOTIONS

As is the case with many minor league teams, you'll want to check the schedule of upcoming promotions before buying tickets. Here are some highlights:

• May 31 - Fightins Ostrich Game Cap
• June 9 - GLUTTONY NIGHT: All-You-Can-Eat at the Concession Stands for $8
• June 13 - MEGA BLAST IV - Largest Fireworks Show Ever
• June 21 - Father's Day Fightins Aussie Floppy Hat
• July 12 - Kids Superhero Cape Giveaway
• July 28 - Pedro Martinez Bobblehead Celebrating his 2009 Rehab Start

CLICK HERE TO BUY TICKETS

Broadcast

You can listen to Fightin Phils games online if you don't live within range of their radio broadcasts. You can also watch online, but that'll cost you a subscription to MiLB.TV.

On the road

The Eastern League has a bunch of opposing stadiums within driving distance from the Philadelphia area, but I would suggest going to see Reading take on three teams if you're just looking to make a day trip: Harrisburg Senators (Nationals), Trenton Thunder (Yankees), and the Bowie Baysox (Orioles).

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