6:40 PM PDT, May 12, 2012
As enjoyable as the first month of Reading's season was, Dusty Wathan is looking forward to the next one even more.
"Now the fun part starts, where we're going back and playing teams over and over again, and we have to make adjustments," the first-year Reading manager said earlier this week. "That's what I'm excited to see. Anybody can go in and be hot against somebody for four games, but once they adjust to you, you have to adjust to them; that's when we find out a lot about players and whether they can play in the major leagues or not."
The next wave of major league wannabes in the Phillies system arrived at Double-A this spring, one step away from Coca-Cola Park. Nine of the organization's top 30 prospects, according to Baseball America, opened the season in Reading. That list didn't include Tyson Gillies, the oft-injured outfielder who was highly regarded when he arrived from Seattle in the second Cliff Lee trade, and pitcher Tyler Cloyd, who has already earned a promotion to the Triple-A IronPigs.
The prospect-laden R-Phils finished April with their best record (16-7), since 1995's championship season. They've cooled off somewhat but through Friday they still owned the Eastern League's second-best record at 22-12 and first place in the Northern Division.
"I'm really happy with the way we're playing," Wathan said.
Reading leads the Eastern League in batting .284 (a whopping 20 points higher than the second-best team) and in runs scored (158). The R-Phils pitching staff ranks fifth in ERA with a 3.31 mark and has a league-leading 13 saves.
Wathan has been very impressed with second baseman Cesar Hernandez, who one Reading observer called the best prospect position on the team.
(Not like there might be a need at that position in the not-so-near future in Philadelphia, right?)
The switch-hitter, who won't turn 22 until Aug. 23, is hitting .303 with nine doubles and three triples in 30 games.
"Cesar's been outstanding," Wathan said. "He's really learned to drive balls — I don't think he's ever going to be a 20-home run guy – but he's hitting balls hard. Last year at times he kind of felt for the ball, like he was just trying to put it in play, almost just playing pepper. Now he's aggressive with his swing, confident with his swing, and that's exciting to see because his defense has always been outstanding."
Hernandez was double-jumped from Williamsport to High-A Clearwater last year, where he also played for Wathan, and struggled at first, hitting .151 through the first 19 games, and under .200 through May 22. But he hit a solid .293 from May 5 on, including .315 in July, to finish at .268 in 119 games.
"The game sped up quite a bit early on him," Wathan said. "He caught up real quick, and coming up here, being in big-league camp this year, the game didn't speed up on him as much.".
The best thing about Gillies, who has been plagued by hamstring issues, is that he's already played 30 games through Friday, one less than the last two seasons combined. He hit just .231 through the first nine games but is at an even .300 since, with six doubles, three triples and a homer.
"I think maybe early he was pressing to make up for lost time, and then he didn't get off to a really good start which made him press even more," Wathan said. "But once the season kind of got rolling and he got a couple hits here and there, he took off."
In his last full season, at High Desert in the California League, Gillies hit .341 with 17 doubles, 14 triples, nine homers and 44 stolen bases.
"Just keeping him on the field has been a huge thing, huge for his confidence, his psyche" said Wathan, who thinks Gillies is good enough defensive to play center field in the majors right now. "You miss that much time, you're always looking over your shoulder, saying, "When am I going to be hurt next?" Now he's a month in, he's played every day, and he says "I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine.' I think he feels like he's got some catching up to do."
The current crown jewel in the organization is right-hander Trevor May, and he's done nothing to disappoint. A year ago he struck out 208 at Clearwater in 151 1/3 innings while going 10-8 with a 3.63 ERA.
This year May is 5-2, winning his first five starts, with a 2.63 ERA. New Britain hung the second loss on him Friday night despite not getting a hit off him in his 6 1/3 innings — May left in a scoreless tie after a hit-batter and a walk, and reliever Lisalberto Bonilla promptly surrendered an RBI single that led to a 4-1 Reading loss.
May has held Double-A hitters to a .162 average (26 hits in 41 1/3 innings) while striking out 45.
Asked what has impressed him the most about May, Wathan, who has had him the last two seasons, focused on his secondary pitches.
"I think his ability to throw a change-up — a hard-throwing guy who throws a good change-up — and he can throw it for strikes," Wathan said. "That's not something you see every day, especially a right-hander with a good change-up. Plus, his curve ball."
Reading's hottest hitter doesn't rank among the team's best prospects. Darin Ruf, a 26-year-old first baseman, leads the league with a .383 average and 26 RBIs and is second with six homers. But like his predecessor, Matt Rizzotti, Ruf has limited versatility.
As Wathan said, the key for continued success will be how his young protegees adjust the second time around.
"You can sneak up on somebody that's never seen you before and do some damage, but once they figure out your weaknesses – and everybody has them – you have to be able to cover those weaknesses," he said.
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