In these worst of times, the Phillies need Reading to be the best of places.
FirstEnergy Park, regardless of the on-field product, has always been among the finest of minor-league venues in which to watch a game. This will be the ballpark's 64th season, and even though it has undergone lots of renovations over the years, it still remains a charming antique with plenty of history and just the right amount of hokey appeal.
The Phillies, however, need more than the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor and Adam's arm-pumping Briscoe Disco to come through for them again at Reading this season. It was nice when the Vegetable Race was recognized as an award-winning minor-league sideshow - Broccoli was so overcome with emotion - but educational messages about good eating habits will not be enough in 2015.
This is the year the Fightin Phils need to have prospects that produce in addition to humans who dress up like produce. It is the year when the product at double-A Reading will tell us as much about the big-league rebuilding process as the team that plays at Citizens Bank Park in South Philly.
"I would expect that the attention to the minor-league affiliates is going to be a little more intense, which is good," director of player development Joe Jordan said during spring training.
Jordan, in his fourth season with the organization, was talking about the affiliates at all levels, but the expediency of the Phillies' rebuilding process will hinge greatly on how successfully the prospects at the higher levels perform. There is a school of thought among baseball scouts that players are not really prospects at all until they reach the double-A level. That's probably a little too harsh, but the big leagues really are quite a distance away until players get to double A.
Expectations rise when you are just two steps removed from the Show.
"When you get to double A or triple A, it's time to do it," Jordan said. "I know when Cody Asche went to double A, he had a short adjustment period and then he hit. That is what you have to do. If you're going to be a good hitter, we can only talk about it for so long. You have got to do it."
The list of intriguing prospects is also the longest at Reading this season. Thanks to the selection of LSU righthander Aaron Nola last year with the seventh overall pick and a flurry of trades that started late last season and continued through the offseason, the Fightin Phils figure to have a fascinating rotation when the Reading season opens April 9 in Portland, Maine.
The exact rotation will not be known until later this week, but in addition to Nola, the Reading starters will likely include Zach Eflin, Tom Windle, Ben Lively, and Jesse Biddle. A year ago at this time, Biddle was at the top of the Phillies' list of pitching prospects, but now the 2010 first-round pick out of Germantown Friends School is just another guy in the mix.
There are other starting pitching prospects in the organization besides those five. The Phillies believe Severino Gonzalez can rebound from a rough season at Reading last year and he is likely to get a promotion to triple-A Lehigh Valley. Funky lefty Joely Rodriguez, acquired from Pittsburgh for Antonio Bastardo, will also be part of the Iron Pigs rotation.
Matt Imhof, a second-round pick last June, is a lefty the Phillies hope to have in their rotation some day, but he will open the year either at Lakewood or Clearwater.
The guys at Reading, however, are generating the most excitement. And if two or three of them are on the verge of being in the big leagues by the end of the season, it would be a sure sign that the rebuilding project was headed in the right direction.
Nola, 21, provided a glimpse of his talent against the New York Yankees last month when he threw three scoreless innings in a big-league exhibition.
Eflin, who turns 21 later this week, also got a look from the big club in spring training, throwing Monday against Pittsburgh. The hard-throwing righthander with a mid-90s fastball will pitch above A ball for the first time this season.
"He throws a fastball, curveball, and change-up," Jordan said. "His fastball can get up to 93 or 94 miles per hour."
Eflin was a supplemental first-round pick by San Diego in 2012 and the Phillies got him as part of the three-way deal that sent shortstop Jimmy Rollins to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
They also acquired Windle, a 23-year-old lefty, in the deal with the Dodgers. He was the Dodgers' second-round pick in 2013.
"I don't think his stuff is as big as some of the other guys, but there is some deception to what he does," Jordan said. "He has a slider, and his change-up is still a work in progress."
Lively, acquired from Cincinnati for outfielder Marlon Byrd, started 13 games at double A last year with the Reds' Southern League affiliate in Pensacola and posted a 3.88 ERA. The 6-foot-4 righthander also struck out 76 batters in 72 innings. That was after 13 dominating starts at high-A Bakersfield in the California League, posting a 10-1 record and 2.28 ERA while striking out 95 in 79 innings.
Perhaps not being the focal point of the rotation going into the season will be beneficial for Biddle.
"He's had a great spring," Jordan said.
This is a critical year for the lefty who has endured more than his share of hard luck over the previous two seasons.
There are also a couple of highly touted position players who need to make their mark at Reading.
Roman Quinn, after moving from shortstop to center field in the middle of last season, played so well in the Arizona Fall League that he is likely to open this season as Reading's centerfielder and leadoff hitter.
"His fall league experience was a real plus," Jordan said. "I saw some things there that I really wanted to see from him."
Shortstop J.P. Crawford, the team's first-round pick in 2013, has risen to the top of the Phillies' prospect list, but he suffered a strained oblique in spring training that will delay the start of his 2015 season. When he returns, it will likely be at single-A Clearwater. It would be a disappointing season for Crawford if he did not reach Reading and continue to hit the way he has at every other level.
"I'm going to evaluate myself and my staff first and foremost by how many guys we have come forward," Jordan said.
This is the year that Reading has to be the fast-track railroad to Philadelphia. If it is not, no amount of broccoli or cauliflower is going to make Phillies fans feel better about their team.
The Reading Rotation
Four of the Phillies' top 10 prospects according to Baseball America will open the season in double-A Reading's rotation. The staff will also include Jesse Biddle, who was considered the organization's top pitching prospect at this time last season. Here's a list of the pitchers with their career minor-league statistics and where they ranked in BA's offseason organizational top 10: