LAKEWOOD, N.J. – Marty Malloy did not know what to expect from his starting rotation as he prepared for his second season as manager of the Phillies' low-A Lakewood affiliate.
He was blessed in his first season. Big-armed prospects such as Sixto Sanchez and Adonis Medina lived up to expectations. The trio of lefthanders JoJo Romero, Nick Fanti, and Ranger Suarez turned in dominant efforts consistently, and Bailey Falter and Alejandro Requena were terrific, too. The BlueClaws' 3.26 ERA was the third best in the South Atlantic League.
Sanchez, Medina, and Romero are among Baseball America's top 10 organizational prospects, so it was a given that this year's crop of Lakewood starters would not be as highly touted. The surprise is that it's been just as good, if not better.
"This group might not be as electric or as talked about, but they've performed at the same level," Malloy said after a doubleheader this week. "It has been one right after the other."
Ramon Rosso (1-0, 0.93) has been the ace of the six-man rotation, but the five guys who have followed have done just fine. Combined, the rotation was 14-6 with a league-best 2.15 ERA heading into play Thursday.
Spencer Howard, the Phillies' second-round pick last June, has the biggest arm of the bunch and has hit 98 mph on the radar gun this season, according to Malloy. He is 3-2 with a 2.89 ERA and has struck out 39 and walked just five in 28 innings.
Lefty Will Stewart, the youngest member of the rotation at 20, is 4-0 with a 1.46 ERA. He has struck out 31 and walked five in 37 innings. He was a 20th-round pick in 2015.
"He has been off-the-charts good," Malloy said.
The rest of the rotation – Damon Jones, David Parkinson, and Connor Brogdon – consists of college pitchers selected in last year's draft. Jones, an 18th-round pick out of Washington State, is 2-1 with a 2.10 ERA. Parkinson, a 12th-rounder from Ole Miss, is 3-1 with a 2.33 ERA, and Brogdon, a 10th-rounder out of Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho, is 1-2 with a 3.95 ERA.
The BlueClaws will soon add 6-foot-10 lefty Kyle Young to the rotation. Young, 20, was 7-2 with a 2.77 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 65 innings last season with Williamsport, but he has been sidelined by a strained left shoulder since the start of the season.
As well as the Lakewood pitchers have performed, the BlueClaws hitters have been mostly silent. The team is last in the league in runs scored and batting average. In fairness, four of Lakewood's opening-day starters — Jhailyn Ortiz, Simon Muzziotti, Cole Stobbe, and Malvin Matos — are on the disabled list. Ortiz and Stobbe are due back soon, Malloy said.
In the absence of those four, Jake Scheiner, a fourth-round pick out of Houston last year, has been Lakewood's best offensive player, hitting .282 with four home runs and an .806 OPS. On the flip side, infielder Daniel Brito is struggling with a .209 average after returning to the BlueClaws for a second season. At 20, Brito is still one of the league's younger players.