For many baseball fans, the season begins in the crisp spring air and ends with the falling of autumn leaves. The combination of peanuts, a cold beverage, and baseball can eradicate even the deepest of summer doldrums. From the first crack of the bat in April to the final pop of the glove in October, baseball has long acted as an escape from reality. But, as the generations evolve, so too does America's pastime. Now a year-round journey, the trials and tribulations that young ballplayers experience in winter ball can be just as influential on their careers as those they experience in the summer.
As a new season approaches for the IronPigs and the snow thaws on the field of Coca-Cola Park; the winter campaign for many current and future "Pigs" is coming to a conclusion. Success in winter ball, whilst not an exact science, can prove to a franchise that a prospect has a brighter future ahead. Below is a roundup of key present and future IronPigs and how they fared in their respective winter leagues:
SS Freddy Galvis - .300, 5 HR, 29 RBI, 18 BB, 34 K (58 G)
IronPigs fans will remember Freddy Galvis more for his 2012 cup-of-coffee with the Phillies than his 33 game stint in Lehigh Valley in 2011. The 23-year-old Venezuelan missed most of 2012 with a back injury prior to being suspended for 50 games due to a banned substance. However, Galvis is still considered a promising youngster in the Philadelphia organization. His performance over the winter will only supplement the expectations for 2013. Playing for Aguilas del Zulia of the Venezuelan Winter League, the shortstop hit .300-5-29 with 37 runs scored and 18 extra-base hits. Galvis led all Philadelphia winter leaguers in runs and RBI and finished the campaign on a 10-game hitting streak in which he batted .348 (15-43). After just one error in 60 games with the Phillies in 2012, the shortstop led the way with 12 in 58 games with Aguilas del Zulia. The flip-flopping between second and short could prove a difficult hurdle for Galvis to clear.
RHP Michael Cisco - 3-1, 6.04 ERA, 22.1 IP, 25 H, 16 R, 15 ER, 12 BB, 9 K (19 G, 1 GS)
Michael Cisco failed to ride the momentum from a strong summer into the winter. The Mt. Pleasant, S.C. product evolved into a reliable bullpen piece for Ryne Sandberg and the IronPigs in 2012. His impressive stats with Lehigh Valley (2-0, 2.67, 30.1 IP, 11 BB, 18 K) figured to propel the 25-year-old into the conversation for a potential bullpen spot in Philadelphia this spring. But, those expectations were tempered following his performance in the VWL. One of five Philadelphia prospects on the roster of Tiburones de La Guaira, Cisco struggled mightily with his command against southpaws (.344, 7 BB, 3 K) and with runners on base (.300, 8 BB, 8 K). He will be looking to build off his strong summer and latch onto a spot with Lehigh Valley in 2013.
OF Darin Ruf - .258, 10 HR, 27 RBI, 17 BB, 42 K (32 G)
Undoubtedly, the biggest story in the Philadelphia minor league system last year was outfielder Darin Ruf's rise to prominence. The 26-year-old began the season as just another 20th round draft choice. By the end of the summer, Ruf was a household name in Phillies' nation. His .317-38-104 performance in 2012 allowed the former Creighton Blue Jay to bypass Lehigh Valley completely, making his Major League debut right from Reading. The kid did not disappoint, slugging .727 whilst batting .333 (11-33) with 6 extra base hits in Philadelphia. After being named the Paul Owens Award winner as the best Phillies' minor leaguer, Ruf took his talents to Venezuela, where he teamed up with the aforementioned Cisco in La Guaira. His power was evident from the very start as Ruf smacked four home runs in his first eight games. His eye continues to be a cause for concern, as 17 walks and 42 strikeouts would indicate. But, Ruf has proven so far that he can succeed at any level the Phillies place him. If Ruf does end up with Lehigh Valley this summer, expect the fans to be lining the outfield awaiting a high-flying souvenir.
RHP J.C. Ramirez - 2-1, 12.38 ERA, 8 IP, 11 H, 12 R, 11 ER, 9 BB, 7 K (12 G)
Acquired from Seattle along with former Iron Pigs RP Phillippe Aumont and Reading OF Tyson Gillies for SP Cliff Lee in December, 2009, J.C. Ramirez has long been blessed with tremendous potential. However, as former Major League P Ken Brett once said, "the worst curse in life is "unlimited potential."" Lehigh Valley fans will remember Ramirez for his 29 relief appearances last summer. The 24-year-old was impressive in his first full year out of the pen, going 3-4 with a 4.01 ERA with 31 BB and 52 K over 67.1 innings with Reading and Lehigh Valley. However, Ramirez showed signs of being overworked in the winter. Another ballplayer that joined La Guaira, Ramirez's command was lacking as he struggled vs. left-handed hitters (5-9, 2B, 3B, HR, 6 BB, 0 K). Ramirez was once a highly touted prospect in the Seattle organization. He will likely begin 2013 with the Iron Pigs, as he hopes to restore the hype that surrounded him when he was acquired from the Mariners three years ago.
OF Tyson Gillies - .294, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 5 BB, 7 K (13 G)
No Philadelphia prospect has been more of an enigma recently than Tyson Gillies. A former amateur hockey star, Gillies was considered the future in centerfield when he was acquired in 2009 from Seattle. However, injuries have stunted the growth of the 24-year-old British Columbia native. After playing just 31 games in 2010-11, Tyson emerged in 2012. In 75 games between A and AA, Gillies batted .299 with 26 extra-base hits and 24 steals in 298 at-bats. His .822 OPS in Reading was good for third on the team among qualifiers. Looking to prove that his breakout season was not a fluke, Gillies headed to Cardenales de Lara of the VWL this winter. The speedy Canadian succeeded, hitting safely in 9 of his 13 games, including five multi-hit efforts. The talented but fragile youngster even showed that batting from the left side would not hinder his ability to hit southpaws, as evidenced by a .375/.444/.500 line in 16 at bats. In a Phillies lineup strapped with lefties, Gillies' abilities would fit right in come 2014. If he can stay healthy, expect Tyson to amaze the fans at Coca-Cola Park at some point this summer.
RHP Julio Rodriguez - 3-1, 3.67 ERA, 27 IP, 21 H, 11 R, 11 ER, 12 BB, 30 K (10 G, 3 GS)
The Phillies' eighth round selection in the 2008 MLB Amateur Draft, Julio Rodriguez broke out in 2011 with the Clearwater Threshers. His 16 victories and 2.76 ERA led the team among starters and his 168 strikeouts were second to recently traded RHP Trevor May. At 6'4", 195 lbs, Rodriguez is a lanky but powerful strikeout pitcher. He exemplified that trait in the winter with Gigantes de Carolina of the Puerto Rican Winter League by recording 30 strikeouts in just 27 innings. After a slow start, Rodriguez finished strong, tossing eight strikeouts and just one walk over his final eight innings of work. At just 22, Rodriguez still has plenty of growing to do. But, fans should expect to see "J-Rod" toeing the rubber at Coca-Cola Park as soon as this summer.
C Sebastian Valle - .193, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 5 BB, 36 K (30 G)
A former top prospect in the Phillies' organization, Sebastian Valle is beginning to see his luster wear off. After walking 29 times to just 26 strikeouts in his Rookie League debut season of 2007, the Mexican born backstop has struck out at more than a 4:1 pace. Since Opening Day 2010, Valle has struck out 299 times compared to just 53 walks. After the team acquired Tommy Joseph from San Francisco, Valle was promoted to Lehigh Valley, hoping that success would evolve out of a change of scenery. However, the 22-year old hit just .218, striking out 31 times with just two walks to his name. In 30 games this winter, the 6'1, 205 lbs. catcher hit just .193 (16-83) with six extra base hits, five BB, and 36 K. His .555 OPS was well below his .629 OPS in 22 games with Lehigh Valley in 2012. As it stands now, Valle has a lot of improving to do at the dish before he can be considered for a Major League roster spot. Expect to see this young backstop in Lehigh Valley to begin the 2013 season.
C Tommy Joseph - .204, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 6 BB, 8 K (14 G)
The key prospect acquired in last July's Hunter Pence deal with San Francisco, Tommy Joseph has since surpassed Sebastian Valle as the organization's top catching prospect. The former 2009 second-round draft choice has shown tremendous raw power in the minor leagues (22 HR in 2011). After joining Reading last summer, Joseph hit .250-3-10. His 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio was underwhelming. But, young power hitters usually take time to work out the kinks before they are completely polished. With Peoria of the Arizona Fall League, Joseph went homerless in 49 at-bats. However, he did show improved vision of the strike zone and the AFL is a tough league comprised of the best prospects from around the world. Joseph may need some more time in Reading. But, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that the Scottsdale, Arizona native could find himself in an Iron Pigs uniform early in 2013.
3B Cody Asche - .281, 1 HR, 12 RBI, 8 BB, 16 K (24 G)
The hype is beginning to follow Cody Asche wherever he goes. With a breakout 2012 campaign in his rearview mirror (.324, 12 HR, 72 RBI, .849 OPS in 130 games between Clearwater and Reading), the former Nebraska Cornhusker could have a spot waiting for him at the hot-corner in Philadelphia come 2014. The 22-year-old did not disappoint in Arizona, where he joined Tommy Joseph in Peoria. Nearly half of Asche's 25 hits were of the extra-base variety (11 2B, HR). This coming after Cody raked 33 extra-base knocks in 79 hits during the 2012 regular season. The signs are clear; Asche is a gap-machine and should be a perfect fit in the Philadelphia lineup following the Michael Young Era.
OF Zach Collier - .371, 0 HR, 10 RBI, 12 BB, 10 K, 3 SB (19 G)
Without a doubt, the most impressive winter campaign belonged to another Peoria Javelinas member. Zach Collier, the Phillies' supplemental first round selection (34th overall) in 2008, continued on the marked improvement that he showed with Clearwater in 2012. After missing the entirety of the 2010 season due to hand and wrist injuries, the promising youngster rebounded in 2011 and 2012. Despite hitting just .255, Collier showed immense potential in 2011, raking 31 extra-base hits and stealing 35 bases for Lakewood (A). The Chino, Calif. native followed up that campaign with his best offensive performance to date, boasting a batting line of .269/.333/.733 in Clearwater. With a chance to join his future teammates Joseph and Asche in Peoria, Collier welcomed the opportunity. "It definitely shows they still have interest me. There are a lot of top prospects here and for me to be here makes me feel really good." The left-handed hitter must have been feeling great after reaching base safely in all but four games whilst showcasing improved patience at the plate with 12 walks. What does this performance mean for Collier's future? In his own words: "I have high expectations of myself. Hopefully this leads to good things next year." Sometimes a little confidence is all a ballplayer needs to reach heights unseen.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.