Flashy Latinos molding future in Philadelphia

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Maikel Franco
Maikel Franco is one of several up-and-coming stars Phillies fans should be excited about.

When I was a kid and a second baseman for my Little League team, I was a huge Philadelphia Phillies fan. Why, I’m not sure, since I grew up in San Diego. I just remember relating to Cuba’s Tony Taylor, Cookie Rojas and Vera Cruz native Ruben Amaro, all scrappy infielders. So when the Phillies were in Los Angeles for a weekend series against the Dodgers, I talked my dad into driving the family station wagon up for a game at the brand new stadium in Chavez Ravine. I struggled through the “Phold of ’64” but my loyalty never wavered. Then a couple of summers later while visiting relatives in Philadelphia, I met an intense kid named Bibi Netanyahu who also favored the Phillies. Little did I realize that he would become Israel’s Prime Minister.

Small world.

I mention these events because I still maintain this distant bond with the Phillies, even though allegiance to my hometown Padres should never be questioned. That’s why I attended a couple of games when the two clubs recently battled at San Diego’s PETCO Park. These teams have shared similar miseries the past few years, but the Padres made several mega-deals last winter and expectations were high. The hype has failed to fully materialize, however, which is why many insiders were shocked when San Diego’s General Manager A. J. Preller decided to hang on to all his potential free agents at the trade deadline. Philadelphia, on the other hand, were known sellers and proceeded to trade Ben Revere, Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon, a cancer on the team that needed to be removed. Nonetheless, the mini-fire sale was disturbing for Philly fans who have yearned for a postseason product last achieved in 2011.

As anticipated, the Phillies have been terrible, so bad that a frustrated Ryne Sandberg resigned as manager back on June 27. The embarrassment seemed to trigger a front office shake up, and it was soon announced that Andy MacPhail had been ushered in to eventually take over as the organization’s top executive. It’s no secret that the move has had troubled General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. squirming in his skivvies, especially since his contract expires at the end of the season. As far as I’m concerned, Amaro should have been canned just because he blew $12 million in signing Cuban pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, who was damaged goods and doesn’t throw much better than the Phillie Phanatic. That was just one of many head-scratching moves that Ruben has made during his tenure in Philadelphia, yet he recently lashed out at fans for “not understanding the game.”

Another example of Amaro’s outspoken behavior came when veteran second baseman Chase Utley, who is more popular than Rocky Balboa, recently rejoined the team after a stint on the DL. When asked by a reporter if Utley would resume his normal role, the answer wasn’t well received.

“Not for me he’s not,” Ruben responded candidly. “Cesar Hernandez is our best second baseman.”

After thinking about that statement for a while, I concluded that Amaro was correct for once and a “process” or “plan” might actually be in place. When I sat down at PETCO to critique the Phillies, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that these guys were pretty fun to watch. Hernandez, 25, is a speedy switch-hitter who is batting .285 with 19 stolen bases in his first big league season. What’s more, the kid has hit at a .328 clip over his last 15 games, mostly as the lead off guy.

Hernandez, a slick defender with superior range, is part of what I call Philadelphia’s “Venezuelan Connection.” Freddy Galvis, also 25, has become the club’s starting shortstop after three years of part-time play on the varsity and several stints with the celebrated Zulia Aguilas back home. While the results haven’t been eye-popping, Galvis previously spent equal time at second and third base, so the learning curve is still in effect. What’s clear is that Freddy and Cesar grew up in the system and work well together, at least for now.

The third part of the trio, Odubel Herrera, is perhaps the most interesting. Signed as an international free agent by the Texas Rangers in 2008, Herrera was left unprotected and selected by the Phillies in the Rule 5 draft this past winter. A converted infielder, Odubel’s work in center field is usually an adventure. But the durable 23-year-old makes up for his lack of experience with speed and athleticism. More impressive, though, has been Herrera’s ability to consistently hit major league pitching. His slash line over 103 games has been a respectable .285/.315/.421, and while the strikeouts are high, so is the ability to hit for power.

What Herrera brings to the table is overshadowed by another rookie by the name of Maikel Franco. The Phillies’ third baseman is a true diamond in the rough who beats to his own drum, yet often displays flashes of extraordinary talent that adds to his mystic. With little protection in the lineup, the 22-year-old Dominican has blasted 13 big flies in only 77 games. Many of those jacks have been of the tape-measure variety, and the free-swinging youngster has a slugging percentage that hovers around the .500 mark. Franco leads National League rookies in doubles and four other offensive categories, but has been bothered over the last week by a wrist contusion. As a result, the Phillies have scuffled a bit lately since going on a roll after the All-Star break.

Amaro wasn’t able to net much for Revere, who is approaching free agency, nor Papelbon. But the haul received for Cole Hamels helped restock the Philadelphia farm system and included Jorge Alfaro, one of the top catching prospects in baseball. Can you imagine the 22-year-old Colombian fine-tuning his trade with the help of 36-year-old Carlos Ruiz, the Panama native who has caught four no-hit games? On the mound, the starting rotation is a mess. But big right-hander Jake Thompson, also acquired in the Hamels trade, should be able to help Aaron Nola next year, as well as lanky Severino Gonzalez. There’s also a surplus of arms in the bullpen, like towering lefty Elvis Ataujo.

Since there’s no chance that the injury-prone Utley will get enough at-bats to allow his contract vesting option to kick in, he’ll be a free agent next year. And as a 10-and-5 guy who can call his own shots, the 36-year-old veteran is of little value to Amaro, especially as a one-month rental. As for Ryan Howard, good luck moving a declining 35-year-old first baseman who is still owed $25 million for next year plus a $10 million buyout for 2017. But this rebuilding project in Philadelphia has already built up some steam, with some raw talent that has a very high ceiling. Scouts are drooling over shortstop J.P. Crawford, who will undoubtedly bump Galvis, and it won’t be long before Nick Williams will be ready to roam the outfield with authority.

So, at least for now, I’m satisfied with the long-term possibilities for the Phillies. Let’s see, the position players will soon feature Afaro, Crawford, Franco, Galvis, Hernandez, Herrera and Williams, a nice ethnic mix that represents what Philly is all about. I hope the folks who frequent Citizens Bank Park will give Mr. Amaro a big Mexican-style hug before he cleans out his desk. He didn’t win a Gold Glove as a player like his pops, but as an executive, the guy finally started to figure things out. There just wasn’t enough time to see it through. Hell, I’ll even give Ruben a “mulligan” for Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez if he can make some minor additions to the 40-man roster before September 1st.

I’ll be watching with mucho “apoyo” from afar, because I still have a soft spot in my heart for the Philadelphia Phillies. By the way, so does Bibi.

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