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Minor League Prospect Review: Savannah Sand Gnats @ Lakewood BlueClaws

A battle of two 2013 1st round picks took place in the Lo-A South Atlantic League this weekend. One impressed, while the other left something to be desired.

Jim McIsaac

After taking in a Double-A pitchers' duel in central Pennsylvania last week, I ventured to the Jersey shore over the weekend to watch 2014 first round picks Dominic Smith and J.P. Crawford square off. The 11th overall pick from a year ago, Smith is the starting first baseman for the Mets affiliate the Savannah Sand Gnats.  Phillies first rounder and fellow California HS product Crawford headlines a prospect heavy Lakewood BlueClaws squad.

Background: The BlueClaws are a relatively new minor league team but they have enjoyed a great deal of success in their first twelve seasons.  They've seen almost 50 players come through the organization and make it to the big leagues including Ryan Howard, Gavin Floyd and Cole Hamels.  The team has three SAL titles and has led the league in attendance each season since its inception.  The Phillies' affinity for drafting young, athletic players has kept BlueClaws rosters exciting and full of potential (even though we haven't see much pan out recently).

Venue: FirstEnergy Park is a great place to watch a game.  However or wherever it is you like to watch the game, there's a seat that will fit your preference.  The venue has traditional stadium seating behind home plate and up the baselines as well as picnic areas along each outfield foul line.  Suites line the concourse in the infield and there are picnic benches just beyond right field.  My favorite seats (where I would have been sitting if I was just there to watch the game) were the grass fields in left and right fields.  It reminded me of Little League ballparks or Spring Training games.  So much of baseball is sensory and being able to sit in the grass and feel it and smell it makes me think of the fields I spent my summers around as a kid.  You can walk the concourse in the outfield, which I've always enjoyed because I love to see ballparks from different angles.  There were some trees and landscaping beyond the outfield concourse that closed in the park and made it feel like the activities at the park were in their own little world.

Atmosphere: To be honest, there will be very few, if any, of these articles in which I write that I didn't enjoy the atmosphere at a ballpark.  I love to be around baseball so there is not much that can take away from that for me.  Having said that, I think I'll be hard pressed to find another park that matches FirstEnergy Park.  The BlueClaws website reads, "It is our goal to make your complete experience as enjoyable, entertaining, and family-friendly as possible."  This mission could not be more accurate or well-done.  There is so much going on at the stadium that it's seemingly impossible not to have fun.

There a tons of activities for kids that truly makes it a family-friendly experience.  Doctor Bernard's Kid Zone features a playground and inflatable bounce house in left field that is set away from the field so that it doesn't infringe upon anyone who is trying to watch the game or on the picnic area near the field.  Kids can play wiffle ball and speed pitch on the first base side.  In the main concourse, children (or adults) can get their face painted, have a caricature drawn or get a henna tattoo.

There is fun for adults too.  The tiki bar in center field has an area for yard games including bean bag toss.  The team has had Phillies greats such as Steve Carlton and John Kruk (well, I guess Kruk is more like a good than great) come to the park and sign autographs.  They host events such as a local Brewfest and wine festival, concerts that included Def Leppard and Bryan Adams and charity nights for causes such as Susan G. Komen and our veterans.  The best part of these activities is that none of them take away from the game.  Every person should be able to go to a BlueClaws game and enjoy whatever it is that they like about minor league baseball, especially the baseball.

Concession: In addition to the variety of things to do, Lakewood offers a ton of dining options.  I love Mexican food so I opted for a burrito from Surf Taco, a Jersey Shore Mexican food restaurant.  Next to Surf Taco was Charlie's Pizza which served actual hand tossed, pizza shop quality pizzas.  There were stands at which you could order gourmet burgers such as a black and bleu burger or their famous pork roll, egg and cheese sandwich.  Not really a hamburger person?  No problem.  A few steps away you will find a gourmet hot dog stand, a bar-b-q cart, Premio sausage grill and Meathead's Subs and Sloppys serving deli sandwiches and sloppy joes.  If you're looking just for snacks, you will find ice crea, funnel cake, fried oreos, Italian ice and more.

The choices don't stop there.  Right Field is home to the Craft Brew House - a pavilion bar that offers beers other than your standard lights and lagers.  They had Shiner White Wing, a citrus beer from Texas; Brooklyn Lager; Otter Creek IPA; Magic Har Summer Seasonal; Anchor Steam Beer from San Francisco and Keegan Ales Mother's Milk.  Outside of beer, several stands served wine and you can even get a tropical mixed drink at the center field tiki bar.  The prices for anything other than Coors Light, Miller Lite and the like were a little expensive but that's to be expected.

Photo credit: Kirby Lee

Prospects: The BlueClaws top three hitters - J.P Crawford, Carlos Tocci and Dylan Cozens - fit the Phillies mold in that they are raw, athletic players with projection.  J.P. Crawford is newest to professional baseball but is the most polished of the group. The report on Crawford is that he lacks strength and, therefore, power but he's 6'2' with long levers.  He hit a no-doubt home run to right field to lead off the bottom of the first inning, showing off his bat speed and the ability to use those levers when he can get extension.  His swing can get a bit long but it's smooth and picturesque - at one point even reminding me of Ken Griffey Jr.  Now, pump the brakes.  I know what you're thinking and I'm not comparing him to Griff but just trying to give an idea of what the swing looked like.  Baseball America states that Crawford has "a good feel to hit [and] hand-eye coordination" and Jason Parks cites his ability to make contact so even if he doesn't develop power, he has the potential to be an above average hitter who is likely to stick at shortstop.  Also, Crawford shows an advanced feel for the strike zone as he walked just as much as he struck out last season and drew two walks on Sunday.

Batting second for Lakewood was centerfielder Carlos Tocci.  At 18, Tocci has been among the youngest players at every level he's played and is actually 7 months younger than Crawford.  He looks it too.  Extremely skinny and baby-faced, Tocci looks like he is a long away from the big leagues.  He's a strong defender with a good arm and most of the questions that surround him lie in the bat.  He clearly needs to add strength as the swing looks decent but it almost looks like the bat swings him.  He seemed to have trouble getting around on velocity but put good swings on the ball, lining out to center field twice and shooting a ball through the right side of the infield for a single in the third inning.  Tocci has above-average speed and it looks effortless as he glides in the outfield and as if he was barely trying when he sprinted home on a sacrifice fly.

Dylan Cozens was in the third spot for the BlueClaws and stood out for his size and physicality.  Drafted in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft, Cozens chose to sign with the Phillies rather than pursue baseball and football (he was a defensive end) at the University of Arizona.  He has huge raw power but he swings and misses a ton with his big hacks.  His pitch recognition leaves a lot to be desired and he looks like a wigwam and a teepee at the plate.  He's too tense (See what I did there? Two tents).  Lakewood's backstop, Deivi Grullon is a strong defensive catcher with an excellent arm that he showed off throwing out a runner for the third out of the first inning.  He also put together several good at bats and scouts believe he can hit double digit home runs once his offense catches up.

For the away team, leading off was shortstop Gavin Cecchini, the light hitting younger brother of Red Sox prospect Garin.  Cecchini is a strong defender who figures to be able to handle shortstop at the big league level.  Some scouts believe that if Cecchini can get stronger and start to pull the ball, he could hit for more power but his swing is currently geared to hit for average.  Cecchini sprayed the ball to all fields in the game I saw as he pulled a ball down the left field line for a double in the fourth inning and put a ball off the right field wall in the sixth.  Even so, Cecchin's value will remain in his glove and doesn't figure to be a fantasy asset.

I will be honest in saying I wasn't a fan of Dominic Smith coming into the draft last year.  I was skeptical of the selection of a first baseman who doesn't figure to hit for much power.  Watching batting practice videos leading up to the draft showed Smith drifting forward in his stance and hitting off his front foot which leaves him susceptible to offspeed and doesn't allow him to use his legs for power.  Smith's bat-to-ball abilities are obvious when watching him hit.  He keeps his hands back well allowing him to stay inside the ball and shoot line drives into the gaps.  He went 2 for 3 with a line drive back up the middle and a double that he placed down the left field line when the infield shifted a bit to his pull side.  Although Smith is young and we can excuse him for some lapses in judgment, I was less than impressed with his demeanor and decision making.  He argued with the umpire when the first pitch he saw was called a strike and broke two cardinal rules of base running when he went to third on a ball hit in front of him and got thrown out for the third out of the fifth inning.

I highly recommend seeing a game at Lakewood if you are in the area not only for the park, food and atmosphere but because J.P Crawford is an exciting young player.  Gavin Cecchini may not be an impact player at the plate and is a long shot to contribute to fantasy teams but after seeing him play, if only for one game, I feel like he has potential to be the Mets shortstop of the future.  Dominic Smith is a strong defender and should hit for average but I don't see him being owned on fantasy teams outside of NL Only leagues.  Next up is a three game series between the Richmond Flying Squirrels and the Harrisburg Senators that, barring any more postponed games, figures to feature Kyle Crick, Adalberto Mejia and A.J. Cole.