Teenager Tocci impresses at Lakewood

Posted: September 02, 2013

LAKEWOOD, N.J. - The first thing you notice is how Carlos Tocci's white Lakewood BlueClaws jersey hangs from his lean torso. A few hairs dot his face - the result of two months without shaving. His English is timid, but the 18-year-old Venezuelan laughs when he hears the word cheeseburger.

"I'm the skinniest guy here," Tocci said through a translator. "But, I mean, a lot of these guys have six or seven years on me."

It is what makes a .211 batting average and .513 OPS entering the weekend superficial because Tocci survived. He played an entire season in the South Atlantic League as a 17-year-old centerfielder. (He turned 18 on Aug. 23.) The average age of his teammates was 21.

He could return to single-A Lakewood in 2014 - a likely starting point - and still be the youngest on the team. This could have been his senior year of high school had he not come from overseas and signed for a $750,000 bonus. He could repeat Lakewood, spend a full year in every subsequent Phillies minor-league affiliate, and still be in the majors by 22.

"He's the most advanced 17-year-old I've seen in a long, long time," teammate Willie Carmona, 22, said. "It's amazing. He's almost already a big-league outfielder. To me, he's close to that. He makes every play. Great arm. He gets great jumps. You can't ask more of a 17-year-old in this league."

"My God," manager Mickey Morandini said, "he's 17 going against 23- and 24-year-olds."

Lakewood's season ends Monday. Entering the weekend, Tocci had played in 116 games. He is just the 11th hitter since 1983 to appear in 100 games in the South Atlantic League at 17. Seven of the other 10 ultimately played in the majors. Tocci's company includes Roberto Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, and Elvis Andrus.

All of those batters posted better - but not overwhelming - numbers in their 17-year-old seasons. Tocci is listed at 160 pounds. A 6-foot-2 frame makes him rail-thin.

"For us, he just needs to grow," Morandini said. "A lot of the balls he's hitting now that are being caught will be doubles, triples, home runs in a few years."

The former Phillies second baseman is enamored of Tocci's demeanor and defensive aptitude. He glowingly told a story about a recent game in which Morandini instructed Tocci where to position himself when the opposition's seventh hitter batted.

"A couple of innings go by, the seventh hitter comes up, and he's in that spot," Morandini said. "He gets it. He listens. He doesn't make the same mistake twice."

Not bad for a 17-year-old, right?

"I have to tell my 22- and 23-year-olds 15 times here," Morandini said.

The most difficult aspect, Tocci said, is the grind of a full season. He never played more than 40 games in Venezuela or during his first professional season. He figured the Phillies would demote him this season after a month or two in Lakewood.

"It's been rough, getting at-bats every single day and only a few days off every month," Tocci said. "I'm just getting used to the daily grind of the year."

"He's just a kid," Phillies assistant general manager Benny Looper said. "You see his body, he just needs to mature."

That is why the Phillies will dream about Tocci's future. "We try to feed him as much as we can," Morandini said. He must be the brunt of teammates' jokes, right?

"Not really," Carmona said. "We're all impressed by him, so . . ."

He paused. No more words were needed.

Contact Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @magelb.

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