Phillies prospects push Saguaros to win in AFL

October 20th, 2022

While the Phillies continue their magical run from the National League’s sixth seed to the League Championship Series, a strong contingent of Philadelphia prospects are building a case to contribute in the near future.

Four of the club’s farmhands had their hands in the Surprise Saguaros’ 7-0 win in the Arizona Fall League on Thursday, including a trio in the lineup that combined for four hits, three RBIs, three stolen bases and three of the team’s runs scored: Johan Rojas (No. 5), Jhailyn Ortiz (No. 17) and Carlos De La Cruz.

Those three have benefited from the presence of Jake Elmore, a hitting instructor in the Phillies organization who is on the Saguaros’ staff for the duration of the six-week developmental league. Though the team features prospects from five different organizations, games like Thursday mean a bit more to the former Major Leaguer.

“It’s always good when guys within your organization play well,” Elmore, a six-year big league veteran, said. “You’re responsible for the whole team but you feel a little more responsible for your own players, because I know the specifics they need to work on. It’s awesome to see the Phillies guys play and play well.”

Rojas kicked off the Surprise scoring with an RBI single in the second inning, followed by Ortiz’s first hit of the afternoon. Then, Rojas put his most exciting tool on display: his 70-grade speed. The 22-year-old, who stole 62 bases in 67 attempts during the regular season, began adding to the seven swiped bags he entered the day with in the Fall League. Rojas took third base without a throw then later broke for home when a return throw from the catcher was too nonchalant, sliding in safely.

Elmore served as the hitting coach with Single-A Clearwater during the regular season and sparingly worked with Rojas while the outfielder spent the majority of Spring Training with the Major League club, so the opportunity to work with him during the Fall League was, above all else, a thrilling prospect.

“You hear he’s electric, you hear he’s such an athlete, and when you see him in person it just confirms everything,” Elmore said. “He has a chance to be a true five-tool guy. From his baserunning, to his fielding, you start adding in his hit [tool] and I really think he’s got more power to tap into as well. He’s really exciting and truly electric on the field.”
Rojas later added a steal of second base, joining Rockies prospect Zac Veen as the only players to swipe three bags in one game in this year’s Fall League.

Meanwhile, De La Cruz, a trendy breakout pick heading into 2023 after hitting .271 with an .815 OPS between High-A Jersey Shore and Double-A Reading this past season, connected on his second AFL home run, a two-run blast that cleared the wall in deep left-center. 

“Sometimes you don’t understand how big he is until you stand beside him,” Elmore said of the 6-foot-8, 210-pound 23-year-old. “Then you watch him take BP and the power is just really impressive.”

De La Cruz did strike out in his four other plate appearances, highlighting an area for improvement. He was set down on strikes in 30 percent of his plate appearances in the regular season and has now whiffed in a notable 52 percent of his 29 trips to the plate in Arizona.

Ortiz contributed a strong day at the plate as well, hitting safely twice and drawing a hit by pitch in four plate appearances. After starting the Fall League 0-for-15, the 23-year-old belted a 110-mph home run on Wednesday and collected the multihit game on Thursday.

“We know he has the light-tower power and the capability to hit home runs, so the goal is just making him a more well-rounded hitter,” Elmore said. “He has a chance to be an impact bat and that’s been really fun to watch.”

The game couldn’t have ended any other way. Francisco Morales, the Phillies’ No. 11 prospect, entered in the ninth inning and struck out the side, nailing down his first save of the fall. Through five outings for Surprise, Morales has yet to allow a run while striking out 10 -- though walking five -- in 6 1/3 innings.

Whenever the Saguaros’ down time coincides with a Phillies postseason game, Elmore and the Philadelphia prospects are laser focused on their big league club’s incredible run.

“It’s amazing. We’re all definitely keeping up on what’s going on,” Elmore said. “Whenever something good happens I always hear our guys yelling [from the clubhouse] and then you’ve got other guys rooting against Philly just to pick at them, so it’s a good time. The energy around here has been really high for the Phillies guys.”