READING — Carlos Tocci celebrated his 16th birthday by hosting a few Phillies officials in his Venezuelan living room. He was one of the baseball-crazed country's top amateur players. And Tocci was ready to sign a contract to start his professional career.
Then the phone rang. The Texas Rangers were making a late push, offering Tocci a million-dollar contract that was $250,000 more than the deal he had with the Phillies.
"I was worried," said Sal Agostinelli, the Phillies' director of international scouting. "His father went in another room to take the call and his mother came out to tell us what was going on. His father then came out and said, 'They offered us more money, but we're happy with you guys and we're going to sign with you.' I was nervous."
Five years after that nerve-racking phone call, the Phillies nearly lost Tocci again when they left him unprotected last winter in the Rule 5 draft. The centerfielder went undrafted and the Phillies again sighed in relief. But the Phillies will not be as lucky if they leave Tocci unprotected for a second straight winter. The 21-year-old is putting the finishing touches on a breakout season and seems to be forcing the Phillies to find a place for him on what is shaping up to be a crowded 40-man roster.
Tocci batted .323 in July with an .811 OPS for Reading and seems to be getting stronger as his first season at double A nears the finish line. The righthanded batter entered Thursday as the Eastern League's second-best hitter with a .310 average and a .367 on-base percentage in his first season at double A. Agostinelli said Tocci could play "center field in the big leagues tomorrow." Tocci is emerging from a crowded group of outfield prospects at the top of the Phillies' system.
"I feel really well," Tocci said. "The season's been up and down, but right now I feel really good. I want to do some damage and try to do something. I feel strong. I worked hard."
The Phillies will have some decisions to make after the season as they set their 40-man roster before December's Rule 5 draft. They will likely have at least 10 openings after clearing space for prospects and players added through offseason acquisitions.
Shortstop J.P. Crawford and first baseman Rhys Hoskins will be added. Righthanders Franklyn Kilome and Seranthony Dominguez and lefthander Ranger Suarez are safe bets to be protected. Tocci is in the mix along with triple-A outfielder Andrew Pullin, who also went undrafted last winter after being unprotected. Both will likely be drafted by another team if the Phillies do not add them to the 40-man roster. Lefthanders Brandon Leibrandt and Austin Davis, righthander Victor Arano, and shortstop Jose Gomez are also eligible for the Rule 5 if left unprotected.
"I don't know," Tocci said. "That's up to them. I can't worry about it. I was a little scared last year, but I was glad that no one took me and I'm still here."
Tocci's impressive season started in October when he returned home to play in the Venezuelan Winter League. He batted .323 and had a .401 on-base percentage to capture the league's rookie of the year honors. Tocci played with and against major-league players. He said he tried to learn something every day. The outfielder carried that momentum into the season as he forced his way onto the roster. And his play back home — which helped boost his confidence — came just a few miles from his parents' living room where he started his career.
"I think he's a major leaguer," Agostinelli said. "He's gotten a little bit stronger every year. You have to be strong to hit into August. That's a testament to him. He's one of those guys that you water the plant and you hope that he grows into what you think he's going to be. He's getting there. I just think he's turning out to be what I think he is. He's a really, really, really good baseball player."