BRADENTON, Fla. - It was only a year ago that the Phillies seemed oblivious to the reality that they faced. As late as last June, the front office bristled at the notion that it should focus its attention squarely on the future. But as Ruben Amaro Jr. stood outside the visitors' dugout at McKechnie Field yesterday, he left little doubt that his philosophy had changed.
"This year is more about our future than our present," the general manager said. "We've said that many times. Frankly, this sounds strange, but I'm more interested in the development of the guys in Triple A and Double A and A ball this year than I am necessarily the guys on the field. Some guys I am very key on as far as our major league club is concerned, but as far as the bulk of the organization is concerned, I'm actually more interested to see how we develop in our system."
It is this thinking that has led the Phillies to send three of their top minor league pitching prospects to the mound over the last week. Last Tuesday, Severino Gonzalez pitched three scoreless innings against the Braves. Then, on Friday, 2014 first-round pick Aaron Nola faced the Yankees, striking out four in three scoreless innings. Yesterday, it was Zach Eflin's turn.
Before facing Pittsburgh's Josh Harrison at the start of yesterday's game, the 20-year-old righthander had never faced a hitter above Class A, where he spent last season in the Padres' organization. Acquired from the Dodgers by way of San Diego in the trade that sent Jimmy Rollins to Los Angeles, Eflin is coming off a season at High-A Lake Elsinore in which he posted a 3.80 ERA with averages of 6.5 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 and 0.6 HR/9.
At 6-4, 200 pounds with a sinker that sits in the low-90s, he certainly looks the part. But as his three innings against the Pirates suggested, this was more about the future than the present. His third pitch ended up in the opposite-field seats as Harrison dispatched a fastball for a home run.
"I was a little upset with myself, but at the same time I thought it was pretty cool, the first major league hitter I faced was Josh Harrison and he goes oppo off me," Eflin said. "It's a surreal moment."
Starling Marte later crushed a sinker for a two-run home run. In between was an impossibly loud and long foul ball off the bat of Neil Walker, that sailed well right of the foul pole. Yet Eflin held his own. While he allowed homers to Marte and Harrison, he also recorded strikeouts against both batters. Six of the last seven balls he allowed in play were on the ground.
"It was good to get through the first inning with the three outs and then I felt a lot more comfortable in the second inning," Eflin said.
The No. 33 overall pick in the 2012 draft out of Hagerty High in Oviedo, Fla., Eflin is part of a crop of young starters whom the Phillies have introduced into their beleaguered farm system over the past year. In addition to Nola, the Phillies have added lefties Joely Rodriguez and and Tom Windle and righty Ben Lively in trades of Rollins, Marlon Byrd and Antonio Bastardo.
"He's a pretty poised guy," Amaro said of Eflin. "He's got some deception. He throws strikes. We'll see. We'll get to find out a little bit more. This is an exciting time for him and for us. Severino pitched well for us, Nola pitched well for us, Eflin's got good stuff, he's pretty poised. It's cool that he gets an opportunity to do this and that we get an opportunity to get him exposed to this. We think he has some ceiling, so we'll see."
Otherwise, it was a lost day for the Phillies. Their pitchers gave up five home runs, all of which left little doubt about their final destination.
Defensively, they committed three errors in an ugly, 18-4 defeat.
"An unacceptable game in all phases of the game," manager Ryne Sandberg said.