Pitcher Scott Mathieson is just one Phillies prospect opening eyes this fall.
It was a long, hot summer for the Phillies’ depleted farm system. Voted dead last in development by Baseball America, the Phils saw a number of prospects head off to instructional leagues and Latin America this fall, hoping to smooth out the rough edges.
With the addition of two renowned pitching prospects, Gio Gonzalez and Daniel Haigwood, who came to the Phillies by way of the Jim Thome trade, the Phillies have made notable strides since September as they look toward restocking a bone-dry pond. Gonzalez and Haigwood, both left-handers, are advanced enough to be counted among the five-best prospects in the entire system. It's also possible GM Pat Gillick will deal for more prospects during and after the winter meetings.
After Cole Hamels, named top prospect in the system, the next pitcher on Baseball America’s list is right-hander Scott Mathieson, a native of British Columbia, Canada, ranked fourth-best player in the organization.
In its latest issue, Baseball America features several Phillies including Mathieson. The magazine rated the 21-year-old as the best pitcher from the recently completed Arizona Fall League. He beat out some fairly stiff competition, including Jered Weaver, the Angels first-round pick in the 2004 draft and brother of free agent pitcher Jeff Weaver.
Mathieson, a 17th-round pick in the June 2002 draft, dazzled scouts with his stuff, though his numbers (0-2, 6.92 ERA), don’t indicate it. At 6-3, 205 pounds, the right-hander throws a power fastball in the 92-94 range, topping out at 96, in addition to a retooled slider and change-up. If his line doesn’t sound too impressive, it helps to know more about the league itself. The AFL has a reputation as a hitters league, setting records this past fall for batting average (.296), runs-per-game (12.14) and hits per game (20.83). The average ERA was 5.40.
The most striking detail in editor Chris Kline’s coverage is how the AFL differs from playing winter ball in Latin America.
“While the AFL gets the most attention domestically for its bevy of prospects, the ones that are genuinely ready to make the leap to the big leagues in recent years are often taking the additional step of playing in Latin America.
“One thing the AFL will never be able to duplicate is the atmosphere of winter ball in Latin America. The stands are filled in nearly every park around the winter leagues, where the focus is on winning—development is clearly secondary.
“But that’s where the league presents another challenge ... players have to find different ways to motivate themselves in the AFL, mainly because they’re playing in front of 25 people—most of them scouts and front-office executives—not 25,000 singing, whistle-blowing, flag-waving fans.”
One player who wasn't afraid to take the plunge into Latin America is outfielder Chris Roberson, who’s spending his winter gaining experience with Hermosillo of the Mexican Pacific League.
Despite his advanced age (26), the slashing MVP of Eastern League is still considered a work in progress. Though he had a strong season in Double-A Reading, hitting .311, with 15 homers and 34 stolen bases, Roberson believes the competitive experience and more looks against better pitching will put him a step ahead for next season. It did the trick for Jorge Cantu and Jonny Gomes of the Devil Rays; both players used the MPL as a springboard toward their breakout seasons in 2005. Roberson's coach, Pat Kelly, coach of Triple-A Richmond in the Braves organization, said he has a chance to become an everyday player someday.
In Venezuela, the Phillies are keeping an eye on a pitcher who could turn into next season’s Robinson Tejeda. Right-hander Yoel Hernandez is burning heat as the closer for Zulia. The 25-year-old, 6-foot-2 right-hander has been groomed as a closer since 2003, had 2004 elbow surgery, and is well on the road to recovery. Hernandez has a 1.25 ERA as a closer this fall, showing marked improvement on control.
As Jim Salisbury writes in his capsule for Baseball America, if he keeps improving, he could be a contributor in Philadelphia in 2006.
“You’re always looking for guys from within,” assistant GM Mike Arbuckle told Salisbury. “The reality is they’re often less expensive and turn out to be just as good as someone that might cost big money to fill the same roll.”
Next season, look for Mathieson to pitch in Reading, Roberson to start in Scranton, and Hernandez to enter spring training as a darkhorse candidate for the Phillies bullpen.