Phillies director of player development Josh Bonifay wasn’t sure what to expect when 53 young players arrived in Clearwater for instructional league camp earlier this month. This has been a year like no other for people in the player-development business. The COVID-19 pandemic killed the minor-league season before it even started. Players lost a full season of valuable game reps and staff lost a season of face-to-face bonding, teaching and evaluation time.
“It was a challenge, but our staff did a great job keeping in contact with our players, checking in sometimes as many as three times a week with Zoom calls to monitor the work guys were doing,” Bonifay said. “The energy and dedication of the staff was phenomenal and it showed in how the kids showed up in shape and ready to go.”
The camp, which concludes Saturday, offered the staff its first up-close look at pitcher Mick Abel, the team’s first-round pick in the June draft. The 6-5 right-hander, who turned 19 in August, was selected 15th overall.
The pandemic cost Abel his senior season at Jesuit High School in Portland, Oregon, but he was able to get in his mound reps at a facility close to his home throughout the spring and summer, as evidenced by the showing he made this month in Clearwater.
“Super impressive,” Bonifay said. “He came in ready to compete. He’s been electric, up to 98 (mph) with his fastball, and his changeup and slider are both excellent.
“He’s very polished. He’s not afraid to go up high for a strikeout and his command down in the zone is outstanding. He punched out six in two innings in his last outing.”
Bonifay praised Abel’s work ethic on the field, in the weight room and in the classroom.
“He wants to learn,” Bonifay said.
Infielders Kendall Simmons and Luis Garcia and outfielders Simon Muzziotti and Johan Rojas have also been standouts in camp.
The Phillies selected Simmons in the sixth round of the 2018 draft (the year they took Alec Bohm in the first round) and lured him away from a Georgia Tech commitment with an over-slot signing bonus of $750,000. Simmons, who plays second, third and shortstop, opened a lot of eyes when he made the New York-Penn League All-Star team in 2019. He led that league with a .520 slugging percentage, finished second with 12 home runs and drove in 34 runs in 171 at-bats. He has continued to impress this month.
“He’s come in and swung the bat extremely well,” Bonifay said. “His bat speed is off the charts and he has one of the highest average exit velocities in our system. We like the power and we like the bat-to-ball skills. He’s a very interesting prospect. He’s strong, aggressive and plays with a lot of passion.”
Simmons will turn 21 in April.
Garcia, who turned 20 on October 1, was a Top 10 international prospect when the Phillies signed him for $2.5 million in the summer of 2017. A year later, the switch-hitting middle infielder won the Gulf Coast League batting title (.369) and was named the top prospect in that league by Baseball America. The Phillies got aggressive with Garcia and pushed him to Lakewood in the full-season South Atlantic League, where the average player age was 21-plus, in 2019. At 17, Garcia was over his head in that league. He hit just .186.
Garcia is still an excellent prospect on both sides of the ball and has looked good in camp. According to Bonifay, he’s added strength to his 5-11 frame and remains a rangy, strong-armed defender at two positions.
Muzziotti, who got some looks in big-league camp in the spring, has also made a nice showing in the instructional league. He turns 22 in December.
“It feels like seven years ago, but he was a Florida State League all-star as the fifth-youngest player in that league in 2019,” Bonifay said. “His bat-to-ball skills continue to improve. He’s a true center fielder and he can steal a base.”
Rojas, a 20-year-old outfielder from the Dominican Republic, gained attention with his bat in the low minors in 2018 and 2019. He continues to build his prospect status.
“He’s incredibly gifted, a future center fielder and a base-stealing threat, in my opinion,” Bonifay said. “He’s got a good arm, he plays with passion and energy and hits the heck out of it. His max exit velocity in camp was 112 (mph). I love watching him compete and play.”
All of the Phillies’ draft picks and June signees are in camp. Infielder Casey Martin, the team’s third-round pick, has been slowed by an oblique injury. Fourth-rounder Carson Ragsdale has impressed with pitch execution and a fastball up to 95 mph. Fifth-rounder Baron Radcliff, a lefty-swinging, power-hitting outfielder from Georgia Tech, provided a camp highlight when he powered a home run through a 25-mph wind against a left-hander. The ball came off the bat at 109 mph.
“Incredibly impressive,” Bonifay said.
The 2020 draft was capped at five rounds, but the Phillies signed a handful of pitchers after that. Bonifay mentioned Blake Brown, a right-hander out of UNC-Asheville, and Billy Sullivan, a right-hander from the University of Delaware. Both have shown fastballs up to 98 mph and Brown’s slider is a good weapon.
After a lost summer, the Phillies would like to see as many of their players as possible make up lost reps by playing winter ball, but with so many other teams looking to do the same thing, spots are limited.
“We’re trying to find places for a number of our guys, but the market is very competitive because guys didn’t get to play,” Bonifay said.
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