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Lino forcing Prada, Phillies to make decisions

July 23, 2013 - Mitch Rupert

The question posed to Nelson Prada wasn't a fair one, and it was prefaced as such. But what Gabriel Lino has been accomplishing for the Williamsport Crosscutters during their six-game homestand has been borderline unbelievable.

So the question posed to Prada asked if Lino is the best player on the field each time he crouches behind the plate.

Prada danced around the question as it was obviously loaded. Piece together the parts of his answer, though, and it says enough about the value Lino holds with the Cutters.

“Right now, he's the leader of the club,” Prada said following Sunday night's win over Lowell. “When you're a catcher and you throw a lot of people out, you catch a good game and pitchers like him and can throw balls in the dirt and know he'll block it, and no he can hit too, he's got to be a leader.”

Those words from Prada came just minutes after a game in which he caught two of four potential baserunners and picked another off first base. And on top of it, he hit a solo home run in the second inning, one of the two runs Williamsport scored in a 2-1 win over the Spinners.

It's been that kind of week for the 20-year old Venezuelan, though. He was the Crosscutters' player of the game in all three games against Hudson Valley last week. And since his batting average fell to .268 on July 10 against Connecticut after a 1 for 5 day, Lino has gone 12 for 24 with five doubles, a home run and 10 RBIs.

All of a sudden Lino has forced his name to the front of the discussion about the top Phillies' catching prospects. He's creating a potential headache for the organization in how it's going to sort out its catching prospects following this season.

Prada is even preparing himself for the difficult decision which is going to come when Andrew Knapp is finally cleared to play defense for the first time since June 20. Knapp was a second-round draft pick in last month's draft who was given a signing bonus of more than $1 million.

“We told him when Knapp got hurt that he's going to be the catcher and this is your opportunity now. You have to make people make decisions,” Prada said. “When Knapp comes back, he's a second-rounder and he has to play, but Lino has been great. I got to see what I have to do. That's my job now. Of course, I have to talk to my bosses and see what's going to be the deal here. Lino can play first base and DH, but him behind the plate represents a lot.”

Lino has taken hold of his opportunity to be the everyday catcher since Knapp suffered a strained tendon in his right elbow and was relegated to being a designated hitter. He's built a rapport with his teammates. He's become the proverbial field general defensively. And offensively he's become the most dangerous hitter on the team with runners in scoring position.

He's become the combination of all the tangibles and intangibles which separate catching prospects in a farm system loaded with talent. Lino's name has to be mentioned with the likes of Cameron Rupp, Tommy Joseph, Sebastian Valle, Chace Numata and Logan Moore as potential big league catchers.

Minor league field coordinator Mike Compton last month said Moore was the best defensive catcher in the system. Joseph is a top-five prospect in the Phillies' system and was the centerpiece of the trade which sent Hunter Pence to San Francisco last July because of the power he'd previously shown at such a young age.

Lino is a combination of the both of them. He's tied for second on the team with four home runs. He leads the Cutters with 23 RBIs. He's hitting .400 with runners in scoring position and a team-high .323 in 99 at-bats this season.

“It's a lot of fun to watch,” Cutters outfielder Jiandido Tromp said Sunday night. “He's just been raking. He's getting good pitches to hit and putting a good swing on it and just driving the ball. He's doing a pretty good job catching, blocking – man, all those stops with a man on third. He's just feeling good.”

The big season for Lino hasn't been too much of a shock for Prada. Lino is one of the more advanced players in the New York-Penn League. This is his fourth season of minor league baseball and he spent last year playing in the South Atlantic League for both Delmarva and Lakewood.

The former Orioles farm hand who was sent to Philadelphia in the Jim Thome trade last summer dropped down a level this year after spending his time in extended spring training working on a swing change. But he's responded to take the step down. His batting average is 100 points higher than it was a year ago. He's getting on base 10 percent more often than he was last year, and he's also accumulated more total bases than he did at Lakewood last year in fewer games.

But more importantly, his defense has been far better. He has just four passed balls this year and is well on his way to improving on the 28 he had a year ago.

He also threw out two would-be basestealers in Sunday night's win, something he's done with regularity this year. He's thrown out 14 of 34 basestealers, and the 41 percent he's thrown out this year is 10 percent better than his career average.

“He's having a good year and he's having fun,” Prada said. “He's hitting .323 right now and he's our best fielder and best defensive catcher. He's a leader right now. He's taking the team on his shoulders.”

It's all part of what has made Lino one of the most intriguing prospects in the Phillies' system this year. Maybe more intriguing is how the Phillies are going to handle him and Knapp when Knapp gets healthy, and in the subsequent years of their careers.

For now, though, it's fun to sit back and watch the best player on the field.


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