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.”

Tuesday night was the NL East in a nutshell

Tuesday night was the NL East in a nutshell

As has been the case much of the season, Tuesday night was not a good one for NL East bullpens. 

All five teams blew a save and three lost in walk-off fashion (Phillies, Braves, Nationals).

For the Mets, Nationals and Braves, it continued a season-long theme of unreliable late relief. The Mets and Nationals have had trouble bridging the gap between their starting pitchers and their elite closers, Edwin Diaz and Sean Doolittle. The setup work has been mostly terrible, with Jeurys Familia struggling in that role for New York and Kyle Barraclough and Wander Suero pitching ineffectively for Washington.

The Phillies, despite injuries to David Robertson, Tommy Hunter, Victor Arano and Edubray Ramos, have statistically one of the better bullpens in baseball. The Phils' bullpen has a 3.84 ERA, third-best in the National League and eighth-best in the majors.

The Nationals' bullpen has a 6.61 ERA, worst in MLB. The Marlins (5.13) rank 26th. The Braves (4.59) are 23rd. The Mets (4.41) are 20th.

Atlanta has not been able to figure out a closing formula. Arodys Vizcaino was the incumbent but he is out for the season with a shoulder injury and was traded to Seattle along with Jesse Biddle for veteran reliever Anthony Swarzak late last week. Luke Jackson had gotten the nod as the Braves' closer but has blown four saves after a strong start. The Braves seem likely to turn to left-hander and former starter Sean Newcomb in that role after several effective outings in relief.

The possibility of Craig Kimbrel also looms. At this point, it's a near lock that Kimbrel will not be signed before the June 3 draft because the signing team will want to avoid forfeiting an early pick for which they've been preparing. All four NL East contenders will be among the teams vying for Kimbrel's services, with the Braves and Phillies more likely to sign him than the Mets or Nats. A reunion in Atlanta just makes too much sense for all parties. (That's where my money would go.)

The Phils last night played with one hand tied behind their back as their top four relievers — Hector Neris, Pat Neshek, Adam Morgan and Seranthony Dominguez — were all unavailable (see story). They'll look for a better result tonight and won't need to turn to Juan Nicasio to protect a ninth-inning lead if they have one.

Neris has been a major reason the Phillies have been able to maintain their first-place standing in the NL East. In 20⅓ innings, he has a 1.77 ERA and 0.89 WHIP with 27 strikeouts and just six walks. 

Neris has made 40 appearances since he was called back up to the majors last Aug. 15. In those 40 appearances, he has a 1.89 ERA with 62 strikeouts in 38 innings. His opponents have hit just .170, going 23 for 135 with two home runs.

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The new Cole hopes to meet the old Cole, but 1st – a showdown in Wrigley Field

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The new Cole hopes to meet the old Cole, but 1st – a showdown in Wrigley Field

CHICAGO — The second-most famous Cole in Phillies history will pitch against the most famous Cole in Phillies history Wednesday night in Wrigley Field.

For Cole Irvin, who will take the mound for the Phillies against Cole Hamels, it’s like winning the lottery.

“You know what’s funny is I’m actually looking forward to meeting him here,” Irvin said. “Back when I was in high school, he was a guy I modeled my changeup after, one of those guys that I really watched when I really started to get into pitching. I watched how he manipulated it, how he used it, how he sequenced it, how he used it in lanes and in what counts, if he needed a ground ball here or a fly ball there. I’d watch videos of him on YouTube. I’d study his grip and just how masterful he was with the pitch.”

Irvin, 25, is 10 years Hamels’ junior. He was drafted by the Phillies in July 2015, a month before the club traded Hamels to the Texas Rangers. The Phillies traded the former World Series MVP because they were in a rebuild. Now the rebuild is complete. The Phils are first-place club. Hamels has moved on to the Chicago Cubs, another first-place club. On Wednesday night, the two Coles, both lefties from Southern California, will face each other and it’s believed to be the first time two pitchers will that first name have done so.

Hamels has never pitched against the Phillies. They are the last team he has not faced. The Phillies have not seen him in person on a mound since July 25, 2015, the day he no-hit the Cubs in Wrigley Field in his last start with the Phillies.

It was a Hollywood ending for the guy the call Hollywood.

The Cubs traded for Hamels last summer and picked up his $20 million contract option this winter. He will be a free agent in the offseason. Hamels is off to a good start with the Cubs. He is 4-4 with a 3.13 ERA in nine starts.

Irvin is off to a good start in his big-league career. He made his big-league debut less than two weeks ago in Kansas City – 13 years to the day after Hamels’ big-league debut – and pitched seven shutout innings against the Royals. He came back with six strong innings in a win over Colorado on Friday.

The Phillies will ride Irvin as long as he’s successful and if that means Vince Velasquez, now healthy, can’t break back into the rotation, well, internal competition is a beautiful thing for a team. It sharpens everyone. Velasquez has long been viewed as a reliever in waiting. Maybe if the Phillies had an arm like that, one capable of pitching multiple innings in that fifth-through-seventh-inning range in close games, they’d have more weapons for the back end of games and be able to avoid debacles like the one that occurred Tuesday night in Wrigley Field.

Irvin is a cerebral pitcher. He is not a guy who lights up the radar gun. He moves the ball around, changes speeds, reads swings, throws strikes and relies on a deep repertoire of pitches, including the changeup he modeled after Hamels, the man he will oppose in Wrigley Field on Wednesday night. The Cubs have a powerful lineup and Wrigley Field can be an intimidating environment. But Irvin has a little familiarity with the place. He pitched there in the summer of 2011 in the Under Armour All-American game for high school players.

“I’m ready to go,” Irvin said.

And when it’s over, maybe before Thursday’s series finale, he’ll get the chance to meet Hamels.

First question?

“His spots to eat in Philly, for sure,” Irvin said with a laugh.

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