BY DON SCOTT
Dusty Wathan returns for his third season as manager of the Reading Fightin Phils and will be joined by second year pitching coach David Lundquist along with new hitting coach Rob Ducey.
The 2014 roster features nine of the Top 30 Philadelphia Phillies prospects in minor league baseball, according to Baseball America. The starting rotation will be headed by the Phillies No. 2 prospect Jesse Biddle and No. 9 prospect Severino Gonzalez. Filling out the rotation will be returnee Perci Garner and Double-A rookies Hoby Milner and Luis Paulino.
As is always the case, pre-season outlooks are optimistic, and with that preface, here is what Wathan had to say about his team as he prepared for the season-opening series with Portland.
“I like where we’re at with the starting rotation,” said Wathan, “Jesse is ready to have a big year. Gonzalez was last year’s Paul Owens Award winner at Clearwater and Lakewood, then made two starts here at the end of the year. He’s a cool, calm and collected kid who is confident he can get outs consistently. Garner came up from Clearwater at the end of last season and Paulino was a nice surprise. Milner is a lefty who has been putting up good numbers every place he has played.
“The biggest thing we’re telling these guys is to throw the ball over the plate,” Wathan continued “For me, I’d rather see guys give up hits than walk them. Players don’t think about that, but if you look at things the end of the year if you give up a lot of walks you’re going to have a ton of runs scored against you. Carlos Arroyo took over as pitching coordinator and instituted some different things in spring training, as far as how to have the guys throw down in the zone. We actually put a string at the bottom of the strike zone for their bullpen work to give them a visual of what we wanted.”
The bullpen duties go to Reading franchise single-season saves leader Justin Friend, who spent most of last year at Lehigh Valley. Reading veterans Tyler Knigge, Brody Colvin and lefties Jay Johnson and Austin Wright are back, along with rookies Kenny Giles, Nefi Ogando and Ryan O’Sullivan.
Handling the catching duties will be Tommy Joseph, who missed most of last season due to a concussion, and Sebastian Valley.
“Tommy will be the every-day catcher, with Valle catching a couple times a week,” said Wathan. “The catching situation will work itself out. Tommy missed most of last year, but for me he’s a young guy who was here at a really young age (20), so where he’s at now we just want to keep him healthy and on the field.”
Returning outfielders are Kelly Dugan and Zach Collier, along with former first-round pick Anthony Hewitt, who set a career-high with 16 home runs following a stretch in June where he hammered seven.
“Dugan finally had a year where he was pretty much healthy, to have a nice year in Clearwater before coming to Reading to finish with 20 home runs between the two stops,” said Wathan. “I expect more of that this year, plus he’s learned to play left and right field.
“Since he was here last year he’ll feel more comfortable this time,” added Wathan. “Anytime a guy can advance to play at a higher level for some time, then knows if he goes back to that level the next year he has a better feeling about everything. The more comfortable a player can feel in an environment the more success he’ll have.”
Wathan expanded on the ways power hitters develop.
“Power is one of the last things to come for young guys,” said Wathan. “Look at Darin Ruf, who was an older guy when we got him. He started with about eight or so, then it became 15-16, then had the tremendous year here.
“We want these guys to become hitters first, then have the power come eventually,” the skipper continued. “If you try to teach power early you’ll lose a lot of things. Dugan is starting to come into his own with the power, and hopefully he can continue that this year.”
Around the infield will be returning Eastern League All-Star second baseman Albert Cartwright, Edgar Duran and former major leaguer Matt Tolbert, who hit safely in 17 of the 25 games he played for Reading at the end of last season.
First-time Double-A infielders are Carlos Alonso who had a .996 fielding average at Clearwater, to go along with 118 hits and 70 runs, Chris Serritella who had an 11-game hitting streak, and Brock Stassi, a ..295 hitter at Clearwater.
“I really like the versatility of the club, because we have a lot of guys who can play different positions,” Wathan said. “It might not be a traditional Reading team like you’ve seen in recent years as far as power, but there will be some guys who can hit home runs.
“We’re going to utilize a National League-style of baseball back to the 70s,” Wathan added. “You’ll see some hit-and-run and bunting that is an organizational philosophy since Ryne Sandberg has taken over. We’re going to be stressing being aggressive on the bases and sacrifice bunting that will make it a fun game to watch.”
In wrapping up his pre-season outlook before heading out for a practice session Wathan stated: “I think we have the right players to do this. If you’re not the right player we’ll teach you to be one.
“You don’t have to be a fast runner to be a good base runner,” Wathan continued. “It’s a lot of hard work and desire to be a good base runner or hit-and-run hitter. Even guys who hit home runs can also be good hit-and-run guys. It’s easy to swing the bat for a hard ground ball and we’ll go for the result.”