The Phillies' top prospect entered the 2016 season as MLB.com's No. 5 overall prospect, ranking only behind eventual National League Rookie of the Year Corey Seager among shortstops thanks to his plus hit tool and exceptional fielding ability. He proved his status early on with a .398 on-base percentage in 36 games with Double-A Reading, walking more times (30) than he struck out (21) before getting the bump to Triple-A Lehigh Valley on May 20.
That's when the struggles began. A career .278 hitter in the Minors, Crawford went 8-for-41 (.195) in his first 11 games with the IronPigs, and though he had some hot stretches through the summer, he ended up with a .244/.328/.318 line and 16 extra-base hits in 87 International League games. His splits against righties and lefties were almost identical, and with a 90 wRC+ at Triple-A, it's accurate to describe Crawford's Triple-A debut as a struggle.
"It was a learning experience for sure," Crawford said before Thursday's Grapefruit League game against the visiting Blue Jays. "That's what I'd call it. I've never struggled like that before offensively. I tried to do too much at the plate. I was one step away, so I tried to do more to get that call-up. I put too much pressure on myself. This year I'm going to go out there and try to hit again like I used to."
That self-imposed pressure can be understandable. Having played at almost every stop in the system over his four Minor League seasons and a step away from the Majors for the first time in his life, Crawford wanted to do a bit extra to get over the final rung. That included trying to launch homers on some swings -- not a great strategy for a player whose career high in long balls is 11 -- or, in his words, "trying to hit .600."
So when Crawford and the Phillies touched base before the beginning of this offseason, both sides knew what had to be done; the 22-year-old would have to return to his strategy of aiming for the gaps, not the fences, and add some strength. Crawford said he added five to 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason, enough to add some punch in the box but not enough to weigh him down from showing his plus range at shortstop. Phillies director of player development Joe Jordan said he likes what he's seen so far.
"He got stronger," Jordan said. "He's had a good camp. I don't know what his numbers are, but he's swung the bat a lot better. I saw a lot of him in the couple weeks before we got started over here. He's fine. He's ready to have a good year."
The improved strength and approach haven't shown up quite yet in the small sample that is Grapefruit League play. Crawford entered Thursday's action 3-for-18 (.167) with a double over seven games, but the good news is he's still showing great plate recognition with two walks and only one strikeout in his 20 plate appearances. The shortstop claims he's just getting warmed up.
"It takes a while for me," Crawford said. "You go months without seeing live pitching, and you try to get comfortable and make an impression here in big league camp. It's tough, but I'm feeling good, so now I can't wait for the season to start."
Now in his second trip to Major League Spring Training, the 2013 first-rounder is still highly regarded in the game as MLB.com's No. 6 overall prospect, but he's seen Gleyber Torres, Dansby Swanson and Amed Rosario pass him in the shortstop rankings. He claims he's not thinking about this go-round any differently than his first, and knows his plan of attack for his second trip to the International League.
"It feels the same," Crawford said. "I still have to go out there and prove what I can do and try to force their hands a little bit."
Notes from camp
Sanchez in control: No. 7 Phillies prospect Sixto Sanchez might be the most fascinating arm in the system entering 2017. The 18-year-old right-hander led the Gulf Coast League with a 0.50 ERA -- no other qualifier's ERA was lower than 1.57 -- and added 44 strikeouts, eight walks and a 0.76 WHIP over his 54 innings.
"I think the thing Sixto has or had last summer that was different than a lot of young pitchers with good arms -- we have a lot of good arms -- was the command of his fastball," Jordan said. "It was a big fastball [with velocity in the mid-90s and up to 98 at times], but he had command of it. He's got a feel for his changeup. His breaking ball needs to develop. That's the pitch for me going forward that we'll really focus on. But for me, the ability to command the fastball, especially the fastball he has, is a great start."
Jordan added that Sanchez is slated to pitch about 120-130 innings during the 2017 season, though he will be capped at five frames per start to begin the campaign. He was slated to face live batting Thursday and is considered a contender to jump over Class A Short Season Williamsport and into the Class A Lakewood rotation on Opening Day.
"I think he showed last summer that he should be given the opportunity to win a spot in Lakewood," Jordan said. "He hasn't won it yet. But sure, he's one of the guys we'll definitely consider. "
Randolph's return to form: Speaking of Lakewood, No. 10 prospect Cornelius Randolph didn't particularly enjoy his first full season in the South Atlantic League. The 2015 10th overall pick played 12 games in April before a shoulder injury knocked him out until July 7. He hit .284 with a .364 OBP in the 51 games he played after his return but showed little power with just 12 of his 54 hits and going for extra-bases, resulting in a .361 slugging percentage. Randolph has since dropped out of MLB.com's top 100 list after beginning the 2016 campaign at No. 84.
The Phillies view the 19-year-old outfielder's offensive issues more as speed bump than anything detrimental to his development.
"Injuries were a big factor in terms of having a more productive summer," Jordan said. "He was really starting to hit when he got hurt the first time in Lakewood. He was making adjustments. But what I see now is a guy who has a lot better feel. His body looks tremendous. He's really had a good offseason. I expect him to have a big year. He looks terrific. But a lot of that is being a year older, a year wiser, being able to say, 'OK, I made these mistakes. I'm not going to do that again.'"
Take on Knapp: No. 14 prospect Andrew Knapp is one of three catchers on the Phillies' 40-man roster, along with fellow prospect Jorge Alfaro and expected starter Cameron Rupp. But with veteran Ryan Hanigan also in camp as a non-roster invite, the 25-year-old is seemingly in a three-way competition for the chance to become Rupp's backup on Opening Day. The Phillies have tried to help Knapp's case this spring by giving the switch-hitter time at first base to show that he could also back up Tommy Joseph if need be. The early returns have been mixed; Knapp misplayed a popup off the bat of Melvin Upton Jr. on Thursday that bounced behind him and (luckily) into foul territory without a touch from the fielder and also had a liner by Jarrod Saltalamacchia eat him up for what was ruled a base hit.
Just being an option at another position can be a boost for a prospect's chances, but don't get Knapp's position confused.
"Knapp's a catcher," Jordan said. "I'm sure as Spring Training rolls along, you'll see him behind the plate a lot more. They have a lot of catchers over there, guys they want to see and get familiar with. But at first base, he's pretty good with how little experience he has. But that's just trying to help him, trying to help the Major League manager and staff get him some flexibility."
IronPigs power: If there's a team to get most excited about in the Phillies' system in 2017, it's definitely Lehigh Valley with Crawford, Alfaro, Knapp, Nick Williams, Roman Quinn, Rhys Hoskins and 2016 Minor League home run leader Dylan Cozens all possibilities to head to the International League.
"It should be a very exciting club to watch," Jordan said. "If you're a scout, you're probably going to write more reports on that club or as many as any club you'll cover all year. For some, it'll be their first year in Triple-A. Triple-A is a different challenge. There are veterans, guys with big league experience on the mound facing some of our hitters. But the talent is there. If there are growing pains early, I think they'll make their adjustments. It should be a fun club to watch. They should be set up to win a lot of games."
Crawford has his sights set a little higher, even if he succeeds in finally getting that call up to Philly.
"We're going to go far in the playoffs and try to win it all," he said. "We came up a little short last year [losing in the IL semifinals to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre]. This year, it's going to be even more fun, so we'll see what happens."