Phillies

A Phillies prospect you'll soon be hearing a lot about

A Phillies prospect you'll soon be hearing a lot about

We’re entering that time of the baseball calendar when prospect rankings begin to show up on websites and in publications dedicated to the game.

When it comes to the Phillies, you will hear about well known names such as shortstop J.P. Crawford, a mainstay on the team’s list since he was drafted in June 2013, and Dylan Cozens, the lefty-hitting power plant who led all of minor-league baseball with 40 home runs in 2016.

Sixto Sanchez is a new name that will appear significantly on every Phillies prospect list this offseason.

Sanchez is an 18-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic, and if you polled a dozen player-development folks and executives in the Phillies organization, they might just tell you he’s the organization’s top pitching prospect.

General manager Matt Klentak made a trip to Florida to watch the Phillies Gulf Coast League team play in July. He returned with an excited look on his face as he spoke about the talent on that young, prospect-laden club. He summed up his impressions of Sanchez with wide eyes and two words: “Sixto. Wow.”

Sanchez made 11 regular-season starts in the GCL this summer and was 5-0 with a 0.50 ERA. He pitched 54 innings and gave up just three earned runs. He allowed 33 hits, struck out 44 and walked just eight.

It’s likely that Sanchez will pitch at Lakewood in the Low A South Atlantic League next season. He has the ingredients — a smooth, textbook delivery, uncommonly good command of a power fastball and an improving repertoire of secondary pitches — to be a steady mover in the Phillies’ system. Standing 6-feet tall and weighing 185 pounds, Sanchez is strong-bodied with a build that has been compared to a young Johnny Cueto. He projects as someone who could pitch near or at the top of the big-league rotation, with the usual caveats of good health and everything going right in the development process.

We began hearing about Sanchez in June when a member of the Phillies’ player-development staff popped into Citizens Bank Park for a quick visit. A reporter asked the guy for the name of an under-the-radar prospect to keep an eye on.

Sanchez’s name came off the guy’s tongue with an exit velocity of 108 mph.

Sanchez is no longer an under-the-radar prospect. Two rival scouts who saw him pitch this summer were recently asked about him. Both offered an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Both liked his ability to throw hard stuff — we’re talking 95 mph and up — for strikes while making it look easy with a smooth, low-effort delivery. With the usual caveats, both said he had the potential to climb to the top of a big-league rotation.

After his strong regular season, Sanchez beat the Braves in the GCL semifinals in early September. He pitched seven shutout innings, did not allow a run or a walk and struck out four. Sal Agostinelli, the Phillies’ director of international scouting, was at the game.

“Tremendous performance,” Agostinelli said. “Not one fastball was under 95. And it's an easy, almost effortless 95. His slider was 88 to 90. No walks. He’s special.”

Rafael Chaves, the Phillies’ minor-league pitching coordinator, concurs.

“He’s got a tremendous arm,” Chaves said. “His fastball is 96 to 99 (mph) — 70 to 80 on a scouting scale — and he can change speeds.”

There are plenty of great arms in the low minors. What sets apart Sanchez and gets folks excited is his ability to command the baseball and his feel for pitching.

“It’s amazing,” Chaves said. “He has amazing poise. The poise he showed and how he dominated the league this summer was impressive.”

Sanchez's feel for pitching is even more impressive when you consider his backstory.

He was a shortstop until two years ago, when he started transitioning to the pitcher’s mound in the fall of 2014. That’s when he caught the Phillies’ eye.

Late in 2014, a Cuban catcher named Lednier Ricardo was auditioning for teams in the Dominican Republic. Ruben Amaro Jr., then the Phillies’ general manager, and Mike Ondo, the team’s director of pro scouting, dispatched special assistant Bart Braun to take a look at Ricardo. The workout was at the Phillies’ academy in Boca Chica. Luis Garcia, one of the Phillies’ scouts in the Dominican Republic, was responsible for providing a couple of pitchers so Ricardo could take batting practice. Sanchez was one of the pitchers that Garcia brought to the workout.

As the workout got going, Braun’s eyes lit up.

He didn’t care for the catcher.

He liked the 16-year-old pitcher that Garcia had brought along. Braun liked the kid’s quick, loose arm so much that he approached the kid and asked what it would take to get his signature on a contract. The kid said he wanted $35,000. Braun made his pitch to Agostinelli and Carlos Salas, another Phillies scout in the Dominican. Done deal.

That’s how Sixto Sanchez's journey to the Phillies top prospects list began.

“I remember calling Ruben and Mike and telling them, ‘We’re not going to sign the catcher, but we might have found a pitcher,’" Braun recalled. “It was kind of an accident, a luck deal. We were in the right place at the right time. Sometimes when you keep working you bump into stuff.”

And Braun believes the stuff he bumped into that day in the Dominican Republic two years ago has a chance to be special.

"Sixto has some of the easiest velocity I’ve ever seen,” said Braun, who began his scouting career in 1983. “He’s so athletic and under control in his delivery that he doesn’t have to come out of his body and flop around with his arms and legs to get velocity. That allows him to command the ball so well.

“If he stays healthy, he’s got a chance to be really good.”

Nick Williams talks up Phillies to a free-agent Cy Young winner

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Nick Williams talks up Phillies to a free-agent Cy Young winner

It's not clear whether the Phillies will add a starting pitcher before opening day, but surely they would like to.

General manager Matt Klentak “is busting his ass every single day looking for every possible opportunity to upgrade our team from every perspective,” manager Gabe Kapler said on Tuesday. “That includes looking at every option possible for the rotation.”

Klentak has kept a close eye on the trade market, but has found the prices (i.e., the young talent that must be surrendered) for top, controllable starters to be prohibitive.

He has kept a close eye on the free-agent market, but the length of contracts that top pitchers are looking for has given him pause.

For months, the Phillies have distanced themselves from speculation that has connected them to elite level free-agent pitchers Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta.

But with spring training less than a month away and both pitchers still unsigned, the Phillies would at least have to consider both pitchers if their asking prices experience a January thaw.

Six or seven years? No way.

Three years? Hmmm. Let's talk.

The Phillies are hosting a number of their young players this week. Rhys Hoskins, Jerad Eickhoff, Mark Leiter and Nick Williams were all in town on Tuesday.

Williams has set his sights on making the National League All-Star team in 2018.

“That's what I'm shooting for,” he said at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday. “I think I had a pretty good year last year. I'm shooting for more now. I don't think being an All-Star is shooting too high.”

Williams, 24, hit .288 with 12 homers, 55 RBIs and an .811 OPS in 83 games, mostly in right field, with the big club as a rookie last season.

To give himself the best chance of surpassing those numbers — and achieving his goal of making the All-Star team — Williams has spent the offseason in Austin, Texas, working with personal trainer Jeremy Hills, a former University of Texas football player.

Williams is working hard on agility, which will help him in the outfield and on the base paths.

And guess who one of his daily workout partners is?

Free-agent pitcher Jake Arrieta.

Back in Austin, between reps and protein shakes, Williams has occasionally talked up Philadelphia as a potential landing spot to Arrieta, the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner who will turn 32 in March.

“He loves it here,” Williams said of Arrieta, who, as a free agent and a Scott Boras client, is astute enough not to rule out any team, particularly one as deep-pocketed as the Phillies. “He has told me he likes working with young guys. I'm like, ‘All right, come on up.’ But I'm not writing the check. I don’t know what he wants. I don’t really dig into that because I'm not really in his position.”

Williams smiled.

“I hope to be one day,” he said.

Williams marveled at Arrieta's work ethic in the gym.

And he expressed gratitude for the kindness and generosity Arrieta has showed him.

“He's bought a lot of my protein shakes,” Williams said.

Time will tell if the Phillies add a starting pitcher to the group that already consists of Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin and other youngsters. The hunch is they will, though it's unclear what the magnitude of that talent will be. Klentak's search for an arm likely won't stop with the addition of one pitcher and it will likely continue through July. And beyond. The quest to build a championship-caliber staff never stops.

“The pursuit is very real,” Kapler said of Klentak's search for pitching. “I have a lot of trust that we'll either go in [to spring training] with a new toy or we will pass on the opportunity because we're better off giving this collection of pitchers a really healthy look because we thought that we could go acquire that piece a little bit later on this season or in the offseason next year.”

Rhys Hoskins on 'surreal' rookie year, position switch, expectations

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Rhys Hoskins on 'surreal' rookie year, position switch, expectations

For a couple of weeks in August, Rhys Hoskins might have been Philadelphia's most popular athlete. Fans marveled at the nightly power display that the young slugger put on in the middle of the Phillies' batting order. Carson Wentz and the Eagles had not yet begun their magnificent season. Hoskins was the man in town.

It hit him one night after a game. He stopped in Center City for some late-night eats. A man and his young son approached. They offered their congratulations and asked for an autograph.

"That's when I was like, 'OK, this might be something that's about to be part of my life,' " Hoskins said. "But it was cool because I used to be that kid."

Hoskins was back in the area Monday night for the 114th Philadelphia Sports Writers Association Dinner. He was honored with a special achievement award for a torrid major league debut in which he clubbed 18 homers and drove in 48 runs in just 50 games last season.

Hoskins was raised in Sacramento, California but moved to San Diego this offseason. His 18 homers in 2017 were the most ever hit by a player who did not make his season debut until after Aug. 1. Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who hit 13 homers after returning from the Korean War in 1953, was the previous record holder.

Williams was a San Diego native.

"Surreal," Hoskins said of that 50-game stretch last season and the buzz that has followed him into the offseason. "Indescribable."

He is now a recognizable face, a signature talent, in a sports-crazy town.

And he's ready for it.

"Enjoy it," he said. "Take it by storm and enjoy it. It's supposed to be fun and that's probably the best approach to take. I think my thought is what happened may never happen again. Tomorrow something might happen. Tomorrow I might never be able to step on a baseball field again. So I think you have to take it by storm and enjoy it.

"If you had asked me a year ago if I would be walking down the streets of Philadelphia and would people recognize me I'd probably laugh at you. But that’s where we are now.

"It's just a testament to how passionate the people of Philadelphia are and how much they love their sports."

Hoskins will report to Clearwater for spring training at the end of this month. He wants to get a head start so he can ramp up his workouts in left field. A first baseman by trade, he began playing the position occasionally last season. He will move there full-time in 2018 as newly signed Carlos Santana takes over at first base.

Hoskins got a 30-game taste of left field last year. He is OK with the move.

"Having Carlos is exciting for the city and exciting for the team," Hoskins said. "We add a guy who has proven himself in this league for five or six years at a very high level so to kind of insert that into the lineup and into the clubhouse, especially with such a young team — I think we're going to feel that exponentially throughout the year.

"Left field is a challenge. It's a challenge that I'm definitely excited about. I started to feel more comfortable out there toward the end of the year.

"I think I can be just fine out there. I'm not necessarily going to be a Gold Glover. I just don’t have the speed that some guys out there do, especially in today's game. But I think I'll be just fine and contribute to the team defensively as much as I can and make the plays that I'm supposed to."

Hoskins will turn 25 on March 17. He projects to bat cleanup in new manager Gabe Kapler's lineup.

"He's energized, intense and thorough," Hoskins said of the new skipper. "He can captivate a room. I'm curious to see how that dynamic works in the clubhouse. I think he's going to be a pretty exciting guy to work with."