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Phillies' youth movement already yielding results

PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Vince Velasquez made a personal statement in his 2016 debut, striking out nine New York Mets while wearing short sleeves on a 40-degree night and then telling reporters that his intent was to take the mound and "dominate." Velasquez's mid-90s fastball and wipeout curve give him the makings of a budding staff ace. His mound demeanor suggests he would be right at home taking on Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner in the opening game of a playoff series.

During the four days between starts, Velasquez is content to take a deep breath and bask in the camaraderie. He'll enjoy the salsa music playing in the Phillies' clubhouse or quietly chuckle as teammates Odubel Herrera, Hector Neris and Maikel Franco bicker in Spanish. Velasquez also has a running shtick with Franco, the Phillies' slugging, be-dreaded third baseman.

To demonstrate for a visitor, Velasquez cranes his neck and gives a shout-out to Franco at the opposite end of the clubhouse.

"Hey, good morning!" he barks.

Franco, who is immersed in his cellphone and looks a tad sleepy, pokes his head out from beneath his Phillies cap.

"Good morning!" he responds cheerily.

"I'm laughing all the time in the morning," Velasquez says. "Franco starts it. Then we've got these guys arguing all the time. It's funny to listen to. We've got the music and a lot of other stuff going on in here. We share a great camaraderie. And we're going to do whatever we have to do to keep it going."

As Philadelphia players who survived the rigors of some lean years will attest, it's a lot better to be laughed with than laughed at.

The Phillies entered this season in a conversation with the Braves, Brewers, Reds, Padres and Rockies as teams that belonged in the cargo section of the National League standings. Yet here they are, after a 10-3 thrashing at the hands of St. Louis on Monday night, sporting a respectable 15-11 record and sitting third behind the Nationals and Mets in the National League East.

Logic says their record is a mirage, their early pace is unsustainable, and anything north of 70 wins is gravy. The starting pitching is young and the lineup has some gargantuan holes. But at the very least, they're providing a welcome diversion from tank talk and daily Sam Bradford updates in Philly.

Talent limitations notwithstanding, the Phillies have a fan-friendly lineup that plays with energy and verve. You don't have to squint to see those patches of empty seats at Citizens Bank Park filling in a year or two from now.

And when it's noted that Franco and Herrera, Philadelphia's best position players, have a certain cachet and enthusiasm, manager Pete Mackanin smiles and nods in assent, offering another term:

"Élan," he says.

The Latino influence

Reality says the Phillies will fade quickly for many reasons. For starters, they have a minus-23 run differential. In comparison, the Minnesota Twins, who are 8-18, have a minus-27. As recent history shows, that does not bode well for the remaining 136 games on Philadelphia's regular-season schedule.

The Phillies' corner outfield production is remarkably low. The left-field contingent of David Lough, Darin Ruf, Tyler Goeddel, Emmanuel Burriss and the recently demoted Cedric Hunter is batting a combined .151 with a .442 OPS. The right-field contingent, led by Peter Bourjos, is hitting .196 with a .485 OPS and no homers in 92 at-bats. While the Phillies took a hit when Aaron Altherr suffered a wrist injury in March, the guys logging the outfield corner at-bats right now are making fans yearn for the days of Jeff Francoeur and John Mayberry Jr.

The Phils have been competitive because of their pitching, which ranks fifth in the NL with a 3.93 ERA. They've gotten some impressive early outings from Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff and Aaron Nola, all of whom have displayed a feel for the craft beyond their years. Journeyman Jeanmar Gomez has converted 8 of 8 save opportunities despite marginal stuff, and Neris, David Hernandez and Andrew Bailey are settling nicely into their setup roles. Opponents are hitting .135 against Neris, who throws his splitter a whopping 53 percent of the time.

"They have a really strong young core to build around, even if it drops off pretty steeply after that," an American League scout says. "Odubel Herrera and Franco are two guys to build around, and I think Cesar Hernandez is developing as an every-day player [at second base]. And you have those obvious pieces in the starting rotation who are really developing in front of our eyes.

"The personalities really stand out. They look like a more experienced team than they are because of their confidence and in-game makeup. They seem up for the challenge of winning tight games, which a lot of teams without postseason experience aren't very good at doing. Put that together with what's coming up in the minor leagues, and you can really start to dream on what that lineup will look like. It's a pretty impressive two- or three-year outlook once you start looking at it through that lens."

The Phillies have a heavy Latin influence, with nine players on the 25-man roster hailing from Venezuela, Panama and the Dominican Republic. The players have responded in a universally positive way to Mackanin, who waited until age 64 for his big chance and was rewarded in March with a contract extension through 2017. Mackanin is a baseball lifer and a straight talker in two languages, having learned fluent Spanish from 14 seasons in winter ball.

Franco, 23, and Herrera, 24, have taken disparate routes to their roles as the team's best players. Franco signed as a 17-year-old for a $100,000 bonus out of the Dominican Republic and quickly ascended the Phillies' prospect rankings with 31 homers between Class A Clearwater and Double-A Reading in 2013. He was in the thick of the NL Rookie of the Year debate last year before going down with a fractured wrist in August.

Franco's biggest challenge this year, scouts say, will be adapting to opposing pitchers who have compiled a book on him. Franco's personal role model is Texas third baseman and fellow Dominican Adrian Beltre, and Franco takes a similarly healthy rip at the ball.

"He has this exaggerated pull approach, and he's really chase-prone to anything with spin on it," a scout says. "Look at his swing, and he steps toward third base and his head goes flying out. But he has as good an ability as any hitter I've seen in a while to hit any fastball velocity. He can hit mistakes, and he feasts on pitchers who try to challenge him with the fastball."

Herrera, a Venezuela native, was a middle infielder buried behind Jurickson Profar, Rougned Odor and others on the Texas organizational depth chart when the Phillies snagged him in the December 2014 Rule 5 draft. Herrera showed lots of promise with a .297 batting average and 30 doubles as a rookie, but his max-effort swing resulted in 129 strikeouts and only 28 walks.

Through his first 26 games this season, Herrera has drawn a surprising 23 walks, the second-highest total in the majors behind Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt.

"If you would have told me that after last year, I would have never believed it," Mackanin says. "He's made a conscious effort to show more plate discipline, and it shows you how good a hitter he is because he's been able to do that and not change his approach to hitting. That's really tough to do."

Herrera has a bat flip for every occasion, and he celebrates his walks with hand claps, fist pumps and other displays of raw emotion. In Monday's loss to St. Louis, he corkscrewed himself into the ground on one vicious hack and wagged his finger "no" at the third-base umpire during a check-swing appeal. All that energy might be aggravating to opponents if it weren't so darned sincere.

Herrera has improved his grasp of English by watching movies ("The Revenant" and "Point Break" are his favorites), but he still relies on Phillies Spanish translator Diego Ettedgui in media interviews. Regardless of the questions or answers, he expresses a joy for baseball that transcends language barriers.

"It's one of my passions," Herrera says. "It's in my blood. It's in my heart. I play with passion and I've always done it. I don't want to do it differently. It comes very naturally."

Help on the way

For years, the Phillies were captive to sentiment and inclined to hang on to franchise favorites well beyond their shelf life. They gradually slipped into irrelevance as Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and other mainstays began to produce less and became a drain on the payroll.

In 2015, the organization finally came to grips with reality and started siphoning off veterans. Former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro left some nice parting gifts in July when he dealt Cole Hamels and reliever Jake Diekman to Texas for Eickhoff, outfielder Nick Williams, catcher Jorge Alfaro and pitchers Jake Thompson, Alex Asher and Matt Harrison. Amaro's successor, Matt Klentak, followed that up with a coup in December when he acquired Velasquez and former No. 1 draft pick Mark Appel from Houston for closer Ken Giles as part of a seven-player deal.

"There's no holding back. You're at the high levels and you've got to compete. If you're not competing, this could just as easily be taken away from you."
Vince Velasquez on getting his chance with the Phillies

Some of the kids are off to rousing starts in the minors this season. Shortstop J.P. Crawford responded without complaint when the Phillies sent him back to Double-A Reading, and he has 19 walks and 16 strikeouts in his first 21 games. Alfaro drove in 10 runs in eight games before going on the disabled list with an oblique strain. Williams and catcher Andrew Knapp are off to productive starts with Triple-A Lehigh Valley, while Appel and Zach Eflin have a combined 6-0 record and 1.86 ERA in eight starts.

Because of the lack of depth on the big league roster, the prospects will have plenty of opportunities in Philly. Williams and Lehigh Valley IronPigs teammate Cam Perkins have already been mentioned in speculation as potential antidotes to the Phillies' sorry corner outfield production. Once Crawford arrives, Galvis and Hernandez can compete at second base, and the loser will be a handy utility player.

"The players' development timelines will ultimately dictate when they're ready for the big leagues," Klentak says. "We'll combine that with how our major league club is progressing, and when there's a need, we'll make the right organizational decisions. When we promote players that we believe can be productive major leaguers for a long time, we want to make sure we're giving them every chance to come to the major leagues and stay here."

The Phillies have the advantage of ample resources and a clean slate in their building project. Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz come off the payroll in October, and the Phillies have the No. 1 pick in the June first-year player draft. While there are no Matt Harveys or Stephen Strasburgs available in the 2016 draft crop, the Phillies expect to add another talented pitcher to the fold next month.

Velasquez, who remembers what it was like to come up through the Houston system with Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr. and Appel, thinks the Phillies have a chance to build something enduring. He sees a lot of young players who are ready to take the opportunity and seize it.

"That's the way you've got to approach it," he says. "There's no holding back. You're at the high levels and you've got to compete. If you're not competing, this could just as easily be taken away from you."

If Velasquez and his young teammates can combine talent with a splash of élan, so much the better. They don't need Bryce Harper's permission to try to make baseball fun again in Philadelphia.