The Phillies could not decide two years ago which of their young sluggers had been the bigger minor-league star at double-A Reading, so they gave both Rhys Hoskins and Dylan Cozens the prestigious Paul Owens Award. Together, they had dominated the Eastern League, combining for 78 home runs and 241 RBIs. Together, the Phillies thought, they would continue their minor-league climb and become big-league bash brothers.
Two years later the hope still exists, but it's flickering. Hoskins, of course, has held up his end of the deal. He burst onto the scene last August and has hit 49 home runs in 191 games. Only three players in baseball – the Yankees' Giancarlo Stanton, Oakland's Khris Davis, and Boston's J.D. Martinez – have hit more since his arrival.
Cozens, on the other hand, is still trying to find his way. After a dismal first season with triple-A Lehigh Valley, Cozens made strides this year and even got his first taste of the big leagues. That is what he will choose to remember most about 2018.
"I got the opportunity to get to the big leagues, which had been the dream," the 6-foot-6 slugger said before the Phillies' game Tuesday night against the New York Mets. "I feel like I grew a lot as a player and as a teammate. As a person, I learned a lot of stuff by being able to experience the big-league level and see how the game is played up here."
Phillies manager Gabe Kapler made it clear that no definitive judgments are being made about Cozens' three brief big-league stints, and that's a good thing for the outfielder. He has just two hits, three walks and has struck out 16 times in 25 plate appearances. Ten of those plate appearances have come in a pinch-hitting role.
"The one thing I mentioned to both Cozens and to Mitch Walding is they're not being evaluated on their performance at the major-league level right now," Kapler said. "You just can't look at a stretch of 25 plate appearances, and even fewer for Mitch, and say, 'This is representative of what you might accomplish at the major-league level.' It's just not fair."
It is fair to look at Cozens' 2018 numbers with Lehigh Valley and compare them to what he did a year ago. In his first International League season, he batted .210 with 12 doubles, 27 home runs and a league-leading 194 strikeouts in 542 plate appearances. He had a .301 on-base percentage and a .719 OPS, numbers not worthy of a big-league diploma.
"There was definitely a huge improvement from last year," Cozens said. "I was a lot more consistent with my mechanics. There were still a few more tweaks I made throughout the year, but I felt like I got better as a hitter. I feel like any time you struggle, you either learn from it or maybe you're not good enough. I have never felt like I was not good enough."
Cozens' numbers with the IronPigs this season were not jaw-droppingly great by any means, but he showed improvement. He hit .246 – up 36 points from the year before – and had a .345 on-base percentage, a 44-point improvement. He also posted an .873 OPS, which was the best on the Lehigh Valley team.
Kapler's scouting report on Cozens is flattering.
"I think from an athletic standpoint he can play all three outfield positions," the manager said. "Obviously you've seen us use him in pinch-running situations and that's not just because we've had especially slow runners on the bases. We saw him as a real upgrade. Good arm. Good instincts in the outfield. He can hit the ball out of the ballpark anywhere."
"He still needs to cut down on some of those swings-and-misses," Kapler said.
Cozens, counting his time in the majors, has actually struck out at a slightly higher percentage rate this year than he did a year ago. He has 140 strikeouts in 373 combined plate appearances at Lehigh Valley and with the Phillies.
"If his plate discipline just comes up a little bit stronger and his swing-and-miss becomes just a little bit less, he is a surefire, every-day starter at the major-league level," Kapler said. "That's an adjustment that is very difficult to make, but one from a physical capability that he's got everything he needs to do it."
Cozens, who at 24 is a year younger than Hoskins, is hoping that he gets his first crack at making the big-league roster out of spring training next season. He will continue to work on his game during the offseason by playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, but there's no guarantee he will make the big-league roster, especially if the Phillies add a free-agent outfielder like Bryce Harper this winter.
"I think I have a legitimate chance to prove myself at the big-league level now," Cozens said. "I feel like I've played long enough at triple A to show that it's time for me to try to prove it at the big-league level. I just hope when the spring comes that I'm healthy and I have a chance to fight for a job. I absolutely still feel like I have the chance to be that same player I was at Reading, if not better."