The Philadelphia Phillies have just promoted Joe Savery to Lehigh Valley for the second time in his career. Ordinarily, people do not applaud a former first-round pick for making it to Triple-A. Then again, there is nothing ordinary about Joe Savery. He is trying to achieve something very few have ever done—reach the Major Leagues as both a hitter and pitcher.
During his five years in the organization Savery has gone from highly touted pitcher to complete bust to potentially serviceable bat and now hybrid reliever/pinch hitter. In many ways, it has been a long, strange journey for the former top prospect. That journey is not over yet, as he has still yet to attain his ultimate goal—a trip to Philadelphia. Even at the current incomplete juncture, this is still a story worth recounting.
It began in 2007 when the Philadelphia Phillies selected All-American Joe Savery out of Rice University with their first-round selection in the MLB draft. Despite still having a year of college eligibility, Savery signed with the Phillies for $1.3 million. At the time, the pick was considered risky but potentially a steal. This is because Savery was about a year removed from arm surgery and had not quite returned to his National Freshman of the Year form. Prior to the injury, the left-hander was viewed as one of the top pitchers in his draft class.
Unlike many first-rounders, Savery signed right away and played well the rest of the summer in the New York-Penn League. The following season, he was assigned to play High-A Ball in Clearwater. Over the course of the next few years, Savery would perform at very mediocre levels. However, it was always just well enough to earn promotions to the next level.
This all culminated in 2010 in Triple-A Lehigh Valley, where it became abundantly clear that Savery's arm would never return to its past form, and that he simply did not have the stuff to get more advanced hitters out. Savery now seemed destined to be forever lumped in as another Phillies draft bust along with the likes of Reggie Taylor, Brad Brink and Jeff Jackson.
Then, remembering Savery's stellar college bat or perhaps even just finding the Phillies' scouting report on him from his high school years, the Iron Pigs decided to hand him a bat. After all, at this point he was a sunken cost for the organization, so why not see if he could still hit?
And hit he did. Despite a four-year layoff from being a regular hitter, Savery managed to post very respectable numbers in Triple-A. He performed well enough that the Phils decided he was worth fully re-exploring as a bat. So at the start of the 2011 season, he was sent back to High-A ball in Clearwater where he would get the opportunity to show off his bat as an everyday first baseman.
In Clearwater, Savery started out on fire. He was hitting pitching with such ease it seemed he was making a mockery off the league. Eventually he would cool off, but not before he ultimately earned a promotion to Double-A.
At this point, there was a lot of chatter about Savery. There were questions whether he could continue to hit at higher levels in the system. People wondered if he would be capable of playing positions other than first base, as would be necessary with Ryan Howard manning the first base position in Philadelphia. All in all, he had gotten a lot of people to take notice of him and garnered some excitement, as people were enjoying his career rejuvenation.
Then something funny happened. Reading started using him as both a hitter and a reliever. Assistant General Manager Chuck Lamar said this was the Phillies' plan all year, to get him re-acclimated to hitting and then ease him back into a bullpen role as well. Lamar said the goal was to get Savery in the game twice a week as a reliever and let him DH the remaining the games.
Savery responded with flying colors. In fact, one could say he responded better than anyone could have hoped. The same pitcher who had just bombed out of Triple-A a year early with a fastball in the mid-80's was now bringing the heat in the low to mid-90's. The same guy who struggled to get batters out had now become dominant on the hill. Suddenly, Savery appeared to have a future on the mound again.
So that brings us to where Savery currently stands, back in Triple-A. He recently made his 2011 pitching debut for Lehigh Valley where he went two innings, allowing one hit and striking out one as well. This will be the real test for Savery. Can he continue to strike out batters at a high rate like he did in Reading? Can he continue to limit his walks and hits? If so, he may have a future in the Major Leagues as a lefty specialist.
But do not forget his bat. Savery has a career .288 batting average and .738 OPS in the minors. While he has dabbled at first base and left field, he is very much a man without a position. Yet if he can continue to swing the stick like that, he may have a future as a pinch hitter.
Imagine what Charlie Manuel could do with a reliever/pinch hitter. Savery could pinch hit and then stay in the game to pitch. Or he could pitch, stay in to hit for himself and then be lifted for a new pitcher. It would be like adding an extra pinch hitter to the bench. The Phillies could even bring him in for a lefty batter, move him to left field for a right-handed batter and then bring him back to the mound to face another lefty. However unlikely, that move is one of many possibilities the Phillies are on the precipice of should Savery make it to the show.
These next few months could make or break Savery's Phillies career because Lehigh Valley is now all that stands between him and Philadelphia. While he may never live up to the potential that got him selected in the first round, he has come a long way. Teams generally hope to get more than just a pinch hitter or a left-handed specialist out of a top draft pick, but that is where Savery currently stands.
Then again, almost nobody has ever tried to make it to the Majors as a hitter and a pitcher simultaneously. Rick Ankiel made it separately as a pitcher and later as hitter. Brooks Kieschnick made it doing both roles; however, he made it as a hitter and only later added pitching to his arsenal to stay in the Majors.
Savery is looking to do both at the same time in order to debut in the majors. I, for one, am rooting for him to make it.