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Phillies' Giles striking, but not ready for prime time

The righthander is turning heads at Reading, but need works before he can offer relief to Phillies' bullpen.

Phillies pitching prospect Ken Giles. (David Swanson/Staff Photographer)
Phillies pitching prospect Ken Giles. (David Swanson/Staff Photographer)Read more

AGUY LIKE Kenny Giles can become a folk hero pretty quickly in the right situation. Part of it is his skill set: 100 mph fastball, 5-for-5 in save opportunities, 14 of 21 batters retired via strikeout. But part of it is the tendency for for a fan base to idealize the unseen. Especially in a situation like this.

Over the first 2-plus weeks of the season, the Phillies' bullpen has looked entirely capable of obliterating their hopes of returning to the postseason. They already have lost two games in which they had a lead heading into the ninth inning, and another one when they were tied heading into the eighth. They have been outscored by 30-13 in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. (In the first six innings, they have outscored their opponents by 48-41.)

Last night, manager Ryne Sandberg elected to send Cliff Lee back to the mound with 116 pitches rather than ask his bullpen to preserve a 1-0 deficit in the top of the ninth. (Lee ended up throwing a career-high 128 pitches, and the Phillies still ended up losing.)

So, yeah, people are going to perk up a bit when they see the numbers that Giles is posting in Reading. Talk radio, Twitter, the local watering hole. There might even be a ballad or two in the works.

Lemme tell you a story about Kenny Giles

And a fastball so toxic it flunks FDA trials.

But anybody who thinks the 23-year-old righthander is a savior-in-waiting for this Phillies bullpen is probably going to be disappointed. First and foremost, there have been no indications that the Phillies are planning to bring him to Philadelphia any time soon. It was only a month ago that the Phillies jettisoned him from major league spring training and told him to work on his command. In 4 1/3 innings in Grapefruit League play, he had walked three batters to go with his five strikeouts. Four more batters reached base via hit. In many ways, Giles looked like the pitcher he has been since the Phillies drafted him in the seventh round in 2011. That pitcher entered this season averaging 5.6 walks per nine innings, including 6.7 per nine in 24 appearances at Class A Clearwater last season.

According to Sandberg, the daily scouting reports he receives from the minor league staff are positive with regard to Giles.

"His control is good early on in the at-bats," Sandberg said. "He's able to expand on the pitches he has, primarily his fastball."

As that assessment suggests, process is more important for Giles than numbers. The vast majority of Double A hitters will never sniff the major leagues. Velocity plays a lot bigger down there than it does in the big leagues. Jake Diekman was throwing 97 mph the other night when he blew a save against the Braves.

"If a guy doesn't throw strikes, the major league hitters aren't going to swing until they throw strikes, and they will lay off certain pitches that the minor leaguers will swing at," Sandberg said. "There is something to that. So when you look at a guy doing well like Kenny Giles, the question is, 'What is the quality of the pitch? What is the location? Are they swinging at balls that are out of the zone for strikeouts, or are they quality pitches that are in the zone?' "

Let's look at the 21 batters that Giles has faced this season. Only three of them were top-10 prospects in their organizations, as ranked by publications like ESPN, Baseball America, and Baseball Prospectus. Only one was a Baseball America Top 100 prospect (Boston's Blake Swihart, who has the only hit of the season off Giles, a line-drive single). Giles struck out Red Sox top-10 prospect Mookie Betts but walked Nationals top-10 prospect Michael A. Taylor.

The vast majority of hitters that Giles has faced are run-of-the-mill career minor leaguers. Only two of of the 21 entered yesterday with a career OPS of .800 or greater. Eleven entered with a career OPS below .750. Of Giles' 14 strikeouts, 11 have come against righthanded batters.

None of this should be mistaken as evidence that Giles is destined for failure as a major leaguer. Consider it more a recalibration of expectations.

Any improvement for the Phillies' bullpen is likely going to come from guys who are already on the 40-man roster. The most understated injury of the spring might have been to Ethan Martin, who late last season gave Sandberg plenty of reason to believe that he could become an important part of this bullpen. The hard-throwing righty has been working his way back from shoulder soreness. He's still in the bullpen-session stage of his comeback, but assistant general manager Scott Proefrock said yesterday that "he should be ready to do some sort of a rehab here in the near future."

Because Martin did not get much work in spring training, he might need to use most of the 30 days allotted to a pitcher for a rehab assignment.

For now, the Phillies have little choice but to keep calling on the options currently at their disposal. The Legend of Kenny Giles still needs some time to develop into a reality.