Division races are taking shape in Major League Baseball and as the trade deadline approaches teams are making moves both big and small. However, some of the best baseball isn’t being played in the big leagues, but down in the minors. Brandon Magee checks in on the best team in all of baseball: the Reading Fightin Phils, who are taking the Eastern League by storm.
If one were asked the question, who is the best team in baseball? Thoughts would immediately turn to the major leagues: Is it the Chicago Cubs? The San Francisco Giants? The Washington Nationals? Is it the Cleveland Indians or the Texas Rangers? All can lay claim by virtue of their current record – each team has at least 55 wins and a reasonable division lead. However, if one were to ask the question, which team has the best record in baseball? One would need to look to the minor leagues, specifically to Pennsylvania. Where the Reading Fightin’ Phils are providing Phillies fans with a reason to be optimistic.
The Double-A Phils have toasted their Eastern League competition this season, standing 35 games over .500 at 66-31. They lead the Trenton Thunder by a full seven games in the Eastern Division of the Eastern League – a Trenton Thunder team that holds the fourth-best overall record in baseball at 59-38 (The Corpus Christi Hooks in the Texas League hold an overall record of 59-37, the Lynchburg Hillcats of the Carolina League have a full-season record of 61-33). While the Phils more than hold their own when they travel the Eastern seaboard, picking up 30 wins in 51 outings, it is their home record that is the envy of all. In Reading, the opposition have come to do battle 46 times and have vanquished the home squad only ten times (a remarkable .782 winning percentage).
The offense has been fantastic for the Phils, with the team leading the league in each of the triple slash categories, producing a .268/.345/.448 line. The team, unsurprisingly, also leads the league in runs (119 more than second place Bowie), hits (45 more than Altoona), doubles (10 more than Altoona), home runs (34 more than Akron), and RBI (122 more than Akron). And, while they are not speed demons by any stretch of the imagination, their 68 steals against 27 caught stealing shows knowledge of when they can take an extra base.
The offense has been led by a couple of powerful protagonists. Dylan Cozens, in his fifth season since being drafted in the second round by Philadelphia in 2012, has put together a season that should see him land on some top 100 prospect lists. The 22-year-old corner outfielder leads the Eastern League in OPS (.958), SLG (.586), runs scored (80), and doubles (29). He is second in the league in home runs (25), walks (49) and RBI (82), third in the league in hits (101), and seventh in OBP (.371). But, his contributions go beyond his powerful bat. Cozens sits just outside the top 10 with 17 stolen bases in 18 attempts and has thrown eight runners out from his outfield perch attempting to take an extra base. Cozens does have one hole in his game, although it is a deficiency that is often overlooked in pursuit of the power he brings. Cozens is second in the Eastern League in strikeouts with 116 in 402 plate appearances.
While Cozens has had his best professional season, Rhys Hoskins continues his assault on pitching which he began last year, where he batted .319/.395/.518 in 135 games between the South Atlantic League and the Florida State League. Hoskins, a fifth round draft pick in 2014, ranks just behind Cozens with the second best OPS in the league, at .906. His SLG is also second to Dylan (.561) thanks in large part to his league leading 26 four-baggers. Rhys also leads the league in RBI with 84, while ranking third in runs (66), fifth in hits (99), and fifth in doubles (22). The 23-year-old Cozens, however, is a first baseman with little defensive acclaim, committing eleven errors in 87 games this year after erring eleven times last season in 122 games.
23-year-old catcher Jorge Alfaro has been ranked as one of Baseball Prospectus’s Top 101 prospects for five years running, and the move to the Philadelphia organization has paid immediate dividends for the backstop. Acquired in the trade of Cole Hamels last July, Alfaro is batting .296/.334/.482 with 14 doubles and 11 home runs in 66 games this season. Jorge also threatens with his defense, catching 25 of the 58 runners attempting to steal a base (43%) this season.
While the Fightins are an offensive juggernaut, the pitching is merely decent. Their 412 runs allowed lands them solidly mid-pack in the Eastern League. With seven pitchers making at least eight starts and 28 men total striding to the mound during the season, expectations for a top pitching staff should have been muted. However, there have been some individual standouts.
Nick Pivetta has led the Phils with a 9-4 record in his 18 starts. Pivetta lands in 9th place in the Eastern League with a 3.43 ERA and is also in 9th with his WHIP of 1.24. The tall 23-year-old right-hander has improved all of his stats during his second season in Double-A, with large decreases in hits and walks allowed per nine innings, and a slight uptick in strikeouts – whiffing 90 in 99 2/3 innings.
Ben Lively pitched only nine games in Reading this season before getting a promotion to another part of Pennsylvania, moving to AAA Lehigh Valley. However, Lively lived up to his name, going 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA and a 0.943 WHIP. In his ten games in the International League, Lively has continued to be a hit suppressor, producing a 1.097 WHIP despite a 3.63 ERA.
A couple of bullpen arms may also be on a quick ride to different Pennsylvania locales. After beginning the season in the Florida State League, 23-year-old Miguel Nunez has locked up the closer position for the Phils. In 29 appearances out of the bullpen, the right-hander has picked up 11 saves and a trio of wins. While his overpowering arsenal is undeniable with 33 strikeouts in 29 innings, so too is his wild nature, gifting 21 free passes and throwing five wild pitches. 25-year-old southpaw Hoby Milner has been the steadier performer for the Phils. After beginning the season with Triple-A Lehigh Valley (where he struck out eight in 5 2/3 scoreless innings), a roster crunch put Milner back in the Eastern League where the former starting prospect has put up a 1.77 ERA and a 1.082 WHIP in his 40 2/3 innings and 31 appearances. The big news for Milner is that he is striking out more than a batter an inning (10.0 K/9) as a reliever, a solid increase from his 5.4 K/9 in 2014, his last full season as a starter.
With a dozen game lead over the [what city are we in?] Wandering Yard Goats for the second playoff position from the Eastern conference, the Fightin Phils are as much of a lock for post-season play as any full-season team can be in mid-July. With the crushing offense and a concrete home-field advantage, the Phils should waltz into the Eastern League playoffs. But for many, winning the title may not be enough. The Philadelphia Phillies are 20-games below .500 and many on this Reading squad could receive call-ups to the majors after the playoffs are concluded. Hopefully the Philadelphia front office has ordered their shades, because these prospects in Reading are shining bright.
Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.