LAKEWOOD, N.J. - The framed photographs that line a wall leading into the Lakewood BlueClaws clubhouse at FirstEnergy Park are persistent reminders of what could be for the youngest among the Phillies' minor-league prospects.
The photos form a gallery of current Phils who began their professional careers with the lower single-A team, which represents the first tollbooth on the road to the major leagues. Among others, there are Carlos Ruiz, Lakewood Class of 2001; Ryan Howard, '02; Cole Hamels, '03; and J.A. Happ, '05.
At each home game at the pristine ballpark in Ocean County, pitcher Jason Knapp and outfielders Zach Collier and Anthony Gose dream a little dream as they walk past the photos. They were three of the Phillies' top four picks last June. Each is a year out of high school and still shy of 19, yet the three represent potential gems from a 2008 draft class that was the envy of many major-league scouts.
In fact, they are three of the biggest reasons why the '08 draft, so important for the Phillies because several of their core players are around 30 years old, drew such positive reviews. Bolstered by a pair of compensation picks for losing free agent Aaron Rowand and another for failing to sign third-rounder Brandon Workman in 2007, the Phils had seven selections in the top 136.
"We needed to replenish our athleticism and our arm strength in our minor-league system," Phillies assistant general manager Chuck LaMar said. "When you talk about Knapp, Collier and Gose, you're talking about what we in scouting call high-ceiling type players. Because of their age there's obviously some risk involved, but this is where you hit on players who can truly win a championship.
"Marti and his staff did a marvelous job not only identifying their talents, but also drafting and signing them," he added, citing Marti Wolever, the Phillies' director of scouting. "To have three young kids, all at 18 years of age, and to have them perform as they have is a sign of their talent."
The Phillies dug deep into their wallets to sign the slew of picks they had in last year's draft, spending $7.2 million in signing bonuses. Nearly $2.3 million went to Knapp ($590,000), Collier ($1.02 million) and Gose ($772,000). The Phils had to be aggressive in their pursuit of the three because Knapp and Gose had signed letters of intent with North Carolina and Arizona, respectively. And scouts believe Collier, a compensation pick between the first and second rounds, has the potential to develop into a Garret Anderson type of player.
Besides, the Phils saw last year's draft as pivotal to their future.
"They have good work ethics," Lakewood manager Dusty Wathan said of the three teenagers. "They're willing to learn, and they're excited to be here. It's just nice to see young guys with talent who want to work, and they do."
Although the adjustment required to successfully make the transition from high school to the minors can be dramatic, by all accounts Knapp, Collier and Gose are handling it well.
Knapp is a hard-throwing 6-foot-5 righthander from North Hunterdon High in northern New Jersey. In a predraft workout for the Yankees, Knapp's fastball clocked 98 m.p.h. After an impressive start, he's hit some rough spots lately, but he seems undaunted.
"The biggest difference [from high school] is you have to mix up your pitches," said Knapp, who has struck out 67 in 521/3 innings. "If you don't, it only takes a couple innings for the hitters at this level to adjust, whereas in high school you can go a whole game barely throwing any off-speed stuff and usually get through. You could dominate with your fastball. At certain times here you can, but most of the time you have to make the adjustments."
Knapp, said Lakewood pitching coach Bob Milacki, "will be in the big leagues someday."
"At times he's been very impressive, and at times he reminds you he's 18," Milacki said. "He's a hard worker, and he's blessed with a real good arm. He's way ahead of most kids who are 18. He has good spin on his curveball and a decent feel for his change-up. He's really confident. Sometimes he might be overconfident. Sometimes he needs to be humbled a little bit. He's had games here when he's totally dominated."
Both Californians, Collier and Gose played together on summer league teams, and they room together on the road. They both said they were thrilled to learn they were drafted by the same organization, and Gose admitted they talk about how they hope to play in the outfield together for the Phillies.
"We talk about it all the time," Gose said. "It would be real nice if we get there together."
The Phillies see Gose, a lefthanded batter, as a potential leadoff hitter because of his speed and slashing hitting style. He leads the South Atlantic League with 35 stolen bases in 48 games and said his goal is to be the leading base stealer among all minor-league players.
"I have to keep the strikeouts down, keep the ball in play and give myself a chance to get on base," the 6-foot, 183-pound Gose said. "And when I get on base, I have to make things happen - steal bases, score runs."
At 6-2, 190 pounds, Collier has a body type that should easily handle another 30 pounds.
"I understand I'm just out of high school, and I have to develop more, grow into my body," said Collier, who is from Carson City, Calif. "I'm so young I don't have the physical strength I will have. But I believe that I'll get there."
Said Wathan: "Collier, I think, can be a guy with legitimate power when he learns to elevate the ball. He hits some of the hardest balls you can possibly hit, but as with most power hitters, he has to learn to get the ball in the air. He hits the ball on a line right now. When he learns to backspin the ball he could be something special."
Wathan said it's important for players so young to learn to deal with failure because few of them had to endure hard times in high school.
"Remember, a year ago these two [Collier and Gose] were probably batting .600 against pitchers who throw 82 m.p.h. or so," he said. "The earlier they can realize failure is part of the game, the better off they're going to be. To me, Gose already gets it. He'll come in after going 0 for 4 and just say, 'Well, tomorrow I'm going to get four hits.' For an 18-year-old that's pretty special."
LaMar said the Phillies go to great lengths to gauge the maturity of high school draft picks and to develop a strong support system for young players who are away from home for an extended period for the first time.
He said Lakewood is an ideal environment for first-year professionals because of the community's willingness to host players and also because the facilities are first rate for a lower single-A team.
"There's a difference between having the physical ability and having the mental makeup. It's an exhausting search. It's not an exact science," LaMar said. "You're dealing with human beings, and you're judging 17-year-olds, and we know how tough that can be.
"But from what we've seen of these three, their instincts, their love for the game, our scouts obviously did a great job doing background on them."
Asked where he projects Knapp, Collier and Gose to be a year from now, LaMar said, "It's hard to project because of their age. The normal progression would be in Clearwater in the Florida State League next year. And if all three of these players at 19 years of age can be at the highest level of A ball, it would speak volumes about where they're headed.
"But any player we have drives that train himself."