The Matt Winkelman Interview


There aren’t many reasons to be paying attention to the Philadelphia Phillies during this lost season. Sure, there are us diehards who will watch no matter what, but even we are getting a little annoyed at the growing incompetence on the field.

If or when Cole Hamels gets traded, there will remain only one real reason to watch the team, and that is the continued emergence of Maikel Franco. With this sense of despair setting in, it makes fans wonder what might be coming next. So often this year we have heard about a “rebuild” that is beginning, and our focus turns to the kids down on the farm.

More from That Balls Outta Here

Prospects represent hope and eternal optimism. Think back to last year, when Ken Giles was doing obscene things with baseballs and the clamor that local radio media outlets were having to bring Giles to the major league bullpen.

This year, many fans wanted Franco to start the season with the big league club, yet he was held down in order for him to taste success at the Triple A level.

The latest object of fan affection is 2014 first round draft pick Aaron Nola. Nola has been outstanding this year across two levels, going 9-3 with a 1.93 ERA, along with 73 strikeouts and only 11 walks in 89.1 innings pitched. Fans want him in Philadelphia now, yet GM Ruben Amaro has steadfastly held to the developmental track the organization has put Nola on in order for him to have sustained big league success.

J.P. Crawford is an elite prospect whose season numbers (.332/.437/.446) and glowing scouting reports, coupled with some recent promotions in other organizations, have seen him entering industry-wide discussions about the best prospect in the game today.

Players like this led me to have a conversation via email with Phillies prospect expert Matt Winkelman. Matt runs the website, where he is constantly appraising the Phillies’ minor league system with a critical eye.

There is very little “homerism” on the website, and he gives you exposure to some players on whom national prospect pundits might not provide as much information.

These days, with the parent club in such dire straights, we fans of the Fightin’ Phils need something to dream on, a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. I wanted to know more about what might be coming. So, without further ado, here is that conversation in its entirety.

Ethan: Thanks for agreeing to do that. First question is about Aaron Nola. He’s the most talked about prospect the Phillies have right now, and with good reason. However, with the numbers he has put up since being drafted, why are most national prospect people still only projecting him to be a #3-type, as opposed to a #2 or even an ace? Surely his slight build isn’t that much of a factor…

Matt: I think a lot of people are underrating him because he is different.  He doesn’t look like a prototypical high-end pitcher and he doesn’t throw like one, so the initial eye test is off.  Then you have the command, it is a skill that impacts everything else about him and it is something you rarely see in major league pitchers.  This often causes writers to overlook the fact that he has three plus pitches (which is a rare skill set to have) and just keep repeating the same reports from before he was drafted.  I have him more as a #2, because he does have a weakness, there is no knockout pitch in his arsenal right now.  When the command is all there it is that knockout punch, but he doesn’t have something like Hamels’ change, Scherzer’s fastball, or Kershaw’s curveball to just bail him out when the command isn’t there.  He can be very good without that pitch, and he is likely going to be a guy who is constantly adapting because his feel for the game is so good.

Ethan: So, it’s obvious that Nola is their #1 pitching prospect, and a case could be made that Zach Eflin is their #2. After those two, how would you rank the next 5? Rank them by their highest ceiling.

Matt: I personally don’t have Eflin as the #2 pitching prospect in the system, but I am much higher on the #1 guy on this list than most (he probably has more pure upside than Aaron Nola).  Since pitching ceiling is fairly nebulous because of projectable arms in the low minors, let’s go with some sort of realistic ceiling based on what we have seen so far.

1. Franklyn Kilome

2. Ricardo Pinto

3. Jesse Biddle

4. Victor Arano

5. Tom Windle

There is a big gap from 1 to 2, I would say Pinto and Biddle (and probably Eflin) are the next group, then Arano, and then a jump to Windle who is closer to a bunch of other arms.

Ethan: Let’s stick with Kilome for a second. You’re higher on him than most everyone else out there. I don’t think most Phillies fans have a good idea of who he is. What is it about him that causes this adoration?

Matt: Last year Kilome emerged on the scene as a big projection guy (he’s 6’6″ 175) who the Phillies thought could have big time upside in the future.  The reports all last year (mostly from Chris King, formerly of Baseball Prospectus, now Fangraphs and Perfect Game) were very positive for a guy with Kilome’s inexperience.  He was 89-92 early in the year and by the end he was touching 94 from a loose and easy delivery.  In addition to the downward movement from his size, he also featured a great sinker, and was just a ground ball machine.  His secondary pitches were extremely raw, which left him fairly low on a lot of lists (including my own).

This spring he showed up in camp and just took off.  He has been 93-95 touching as high as 97 pretty consistently, with the projection for even more down the road.  He swapped the slider out for a curveball that is already flashing plus and found a changeup grip that has that pitch looking like it could be plus down the road.  Put it all together and you have a pitcher with as much potential as any in the minors, let alone just the Phillies system.  It sounds like they will take it slow with him this year and might keep him in Williamsport all summer, but he could take off quickly next year.  He is already in my Top 5 prospects in the system and it is only going to go higher from there.

Ethan: Let’s switch to hitters. Maikel Franco has been hot of late, and most fans are extremely excited. However, at least one guy I saw on Twitter from BP said that Franco’s “streakiness” will give you hot streaks like this, but he will also get very cold, this mostly due to his approach. Is this a fair assessment of Franco, or can he adapt his approach to be a more consistent hitter, avoiding the peaks and valleys?

Matt: I think it is fair.  His hands are quick and strong, but it is not a short swing.  If he is left being overly aggressive he can really put himself in a bad hitting position.  He has already made huge strides with his approach and could continue to do so.  However, predicting a guy to take that step is a daunting task because it is where a lot of guys fail in their major league journeys.  This is why the most encouraging ABs for him aren’t things like the two home runs last night, but things like the single on the 94 mph fastball on the outer half of the plate that he lined over the second baseman.

Ethan: With each Cole Hamels trade rumor comes the nugget from “sources” that the team is most interested in catching, with names like Swihart and Alfaro prominently mentioned. Is the Phillies minor league catching that bad, or can names like (Gabriel) Lino, (Andrew) Knapp or (Deivi) Grullon develop into a first division catcher (fully assuming Tommy Joseph never makes it back as a catcher)? Personally, I’d like to see them go with more defensive minded catchers, as that seems to be a more cost effective route of building a team. Agree or disagree?

Matt: None of the catchers in the high minors are ready to take on major league jobs, but you could say the same of almost any other position in the organization.  I don’t think catcher is really that huge a weakness in the organization, and I like some of the guys a bit lower like Deivi Grullon quite a bit.  In reality the only guys that are going to be a real upgrade on what the Phillies have is an elite level player, which is the reason names like Blake Swihart and Jorge Alfaro are coming up. They are good players and top prospects on teams that are looking at Hamels.  I am a big fan of building a team up the middle (P, C, SS, CF) and the Phillies have seemed to match that in recent years, so acquiring an up the middle player like a catcher makes a ton of sense (especially with Crawford at shortstop, and potentially Roman Quinn in center field).  As for offense vs. defense, if both players are 50s I am going to go defense. You are right it is likely to be a bit cheaper and I think it impacts the game more.  However, if you can get a legitimate bat that also can play catcher, that is a guy I want.  I know they won’t be in the lineup everyday, but it is a huge upgrade over what other teams are running out there.

Ethan: We all know about Crawford. He’s awesome. However, who are some other names that could put themselves on the map this summer and next? I’m really starting to like Rhys Hoskins, Kelly Dugan (fresh off the DL) and Malquin Canelo.

Matt: In the high minors, Kelly Dugan and Aaron Altherr have been around forever (both were drafted in 2009).  I like Dugan more than Altherr because I believe in his ability to hit, but he can’t stay healthy. If he can I think he can be a regular.  Altherr is a major leaguer; I am just not sure he is a starter.  Hoskins and Canelo are both quite interesting. Neither has superstar tools, but they could be regulars down the road.

Outside of those names, Carlos Tocci is a guy who has also been around for a while, but he can flat-out hit and play a great center field.  He is starting to come into his strength and the results are showing up, but he is a guy who could be an above average regular or better in the majors. 

Another guy who could rocket up lists is Williamsport outfielder Jose Pujols.  He might have the best raw power in the system born out of great bat speed.  He has some serious problems with his approach, but he is a guy with the potential to hit 30+ home runs a year if it all comes together.  He is going to show flashes of brilliance to go with some rough patches, but could have big payoff.

A sleeper to watch is catcher Chace Numata, he is really under the radar due to a string of injuries.  But he is a solid defender with a great arm who has just hit while healthy.  He is a switch hitter with a good approach and some power.  He may not have more than a backup ceiling, but the org loves him and he hasn’t put up any numbers to disprove that.

Ethan: Pat Gillick, earlier this year, said he hopes to be contending by 2017, 2018, then was quoted this week as saying it might be a little later. Realistically, while knowing no one will quote you and hunt you down if you’re wrong, what do you think is the most realistic timeline for a return to contention, keeping in mind, free agency isn’t what it used to be, with organizations locking up key players earlier?

Matt: I think they can compete for a Wild Card spot in 2017.  The NL East is a train wreck.  The Mets have some young talent but one of the worst management situations in baseball, though not the worst in the division thanks to the Marlins.  The Nats will be good, but they have a lot of guys they need to pay.  I really am not buying the Braves yet.  If you look at the Phillies they will have Crawford, Franco, Nola, Quinn, Hamels return, and others up in 2017.  It isn’t a great team, but a free agent there and a breakout there and that could be a real team.  As for World Series or deep play off runs you are looking at 2018-2019 with the right FAs and trades.  I might be more optimistic than Gillick though.

Ethan: Last question: since following you on Twitter, I’ve noticed that you’re a beer connoisseur. Name me three beers I have to try this summer.

Matt: I will start by saying I like big flavors and high alcohol so my suggestions aren’t for everyone.  The first suggestion is Sour Monkey by Victory Brewing Company.  I love Golden Monkey and they have managed to keep everything great about the original and add in sour yeasts to make a really interesting beer.  I will suggest almost anything made by Evil Twin Brewing Company but they recently released a Double Stout called Even More Jesus that is absolutely fantastic.  If you want something that won’t kill the wallet and is easy and drinkable but still very good, Champagne Velvet is a Prohibition style Pilsner by Upland Brewing Company.  It won’t give you big bold complex flavors, but it might be the most drinkable beer I have encountered out here.  It has all of the refreshing quantities of a cheap mass-produced beer without any of the unpleasantness.  As a bonus if you are in the Greater Philadelphia area I always suggest Golden Monkey, Tripel Horse (River Horse Brewing Company), and Dogfish Head 90 and 120 Minute IPA.

So there you have it. If you glance around at the national prognosticators, most would agree that the Phillies’ system is in the lower third, but from what I have seen, and judging from Matt’s Twitter timeline, this isn’t quite giving them there due. Sure, most of the talent is in the volatile lower levels, where they are far short of a guarantee, but have faith. There is some help coming, hopefully sooner rather than later.

If you haven’t already, I would suggest following Matt on Twitter (@Matt_Winkelman) so that you can start to familiarize yourself with some of these names. His website, again, is Bookmark it; you won’t be sad you did.