By Dan Urda (@DanUrda)
As we suffer through one of the most frustrating Phillies regular seasons since the days of the Vet, Philly Fast Break will be profiling one minor league player in the Phillies’ farm system every week, to familiarize readers with the faces of the future. Not all players profiled will be top prospects. As anybody who has seen Bull Durham knows, the minor leagues are stocked both with players who hope to one day play in the major leagues, as well as characters with all kinds of crazy back stories who are doing everything they can to prolong their professional career, even if they know that their odds of stepping on the field for a Major League team are about as high as the odds Ruben Amaro, Jr. wins MLB Executive of the Year.
Miserable. That is the first word that comes to mind when thinking the best way to describe this Phillies season. While anybody with a basic knowledge of the game of baseball (i.e. not Ruben Amaro) saw this disaster of a season coming a mile away, it is still in our nature as fans to get excited every spring in hopes that somehow, some way, the Phillies find themselves with a competitive team to hold our interest throughout the summer. Unfortunately, this season one cannot even enjoy spending a lazy Sunday afternoon watching a game on the couch without dealing with the frustration of them falling behind 3-0 before an out has even been recorded in the game.
At this point of the season, this is not breaking news; we have all made our peace with the fact that this team is terrible at the Major League level. However, one thing that not all fans are familiar with is the state of the Minor League system. Is there help on the way, or does this team seem destined for many more years of futility? By reading this column on a weekly basis, we hope readers get a sense of the state of the full organization, and learn about some of the more interesting characters who make up the rosters of the Phillies’ affiliates in AAA through the lowest level Dominican and Venezuelan leagues, whose rosters are filled with players born after the invention of the iPod.
Unfortunately, there is not much imminent help coming to the Phillies through their Minor League system. Publications seemingly agree that the farm system overall is in the middle of the pack compared to other organizations, but most of the talent in the Phillies’ system resides in the lower levels of the minors, meaning they are multiple years away from sniffing the big leagues. Falling in love with lower level prospects can often be dangerous. The hope is that, of the handful of players who flash potential at these levels, one or two become above average regulars, one or two more become average regulars, and maybe a few others become fringe major leaguers or bullpen arms. There is really no such thing as a sure thing.
However, on the positive side, there is one gem in the Phillies system who can be considered a true, can’t-miss prospect, and just to start this series off with some optimism, he will be the first player profiled. As frustrating as Jimmy Rollins can be, with his first pitch pop-ups and unwillingness to run out ground balls, there is no denying that he was a special player for a very long time, an elite shortstop who was, along with others, a face of the franchise for over a decade. With prospect J.P. Crawford, by 2016, the Phillies may be able to replace one elite caliber shortstop with another.
The Phillies have not hit on their first pick of the draft very often in recent years, but there is no doubt that they struck gold in 2013 when they selected Crawford as the 16th overall pick in the June draft. High School position players can be very “boom or bust” once their professional careers begin, but Crawford has not missed a beat since the day he put on a professional uniform. After being drafted, Crawford dominated the Gulf Coast League last season, which was a positive sign, but not unexpected. Faced with his first real challenge in 2014, Crawford began the season at low Class A Lakewood, where he was so dominant that he was promoted to High Class A Clearwater by the All-Star break. He was one of two members of the Phillies organization (along with Maikel Franco) to play in the Major League Baseball Futures Game, held every year as part of the All-Star weekend festivities.
Unlike many high school shortstops who are drafted, Crawford projects to stay there, which is in itself a positive because a bat does not need to be elite for a player to be a star at that position. Crawford will offer the most value with his glove, which is above average, while his arm could wind up being elite if he packs on a little bit more muscle. This is not to say that Crawford will be Freddy Galvis at the plate, as his hit tool projects to be slightly above average with average power.
If this description isn’t making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, it is because Crawford has a natural feel for the game, and will be the kind of player who ends up being worth more as a whole than the sum of his parts. He is not a jet on the bases, but his base-running instincts are fantastic. He is not a power hitter, but he’ll pull a handful of home runs every year. And he won’t win batting titles, but he will likely be a steady .280-.300 hitter on an annual basis.
Overall, in Crawford, the Phillies have a polished, young shortstop who, at this progression rate, could step in to the big leagues as early as 2016. I fully expect him to be a guy who Philadelphia fans will fall in love with, a true professional who plays the game the right way (how much of a hack does that last sentence make me sound like?). While Crawford may not have a ceiling as high as Jimmy Rollins did, it would surprise no one if he makes a handful of All-Star teams. J.P. Crawford is the number one prospect in the Phillies system, and if you asked 1,000 scouts, they would all agree with that. He is truly a player that fans can look forward to seeing in red pinstripes in the not too distant future, and at the moment, those are few and far between.