Inside the Phillies: Asche and Ruf provide hope for the Phillies

YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Posted: September 16, 2013

Two years ago at this time, Cody Asche was down in Clearwater, Fla., getting ready to play games in the Florida Instructional League. After hitting .192 as a second baseman with short-season Williamsport, the 2011 fourth-round draft pick out of the University of Nebraska was considered as much a project as a prospect.

Two years ago at this time, Darin Ruf was taking a little break before reporting to the Arizona Fall League. He was 25 years old and a below-average runner with some power who had just spent a second straight season at high-A Clearwater.

Today, Asche and Ruf are the two players who have made this second straight wait-until-next-year season just a little more bearable for Phillies fans. They are the two rookie position players from this season most likely to play a prominent role when the Phillies begin anew in 2014.

They are a reason for hope not just because of the way they have played since being called up from triple-A Lehigh Valley this season, but also because of their backstories. They are proof that sometimes hardcore baseball players are better selections than the high-ceiling athletes.

Relief was what Asche felt at the end of his first professional season at Williamsport. He had been playing baseball since January, finishing with a strong junior season at Nebraska before being drafted by the Phillies. College players are typically assigned to the Williamsport team in the New York-Penn League, and they're expected to excel there.

Asche, 21 at the time, did not. In addition to batting just .192, he also struck out 50 times in 268 plate appearances. The idea that he'd be starting anywhere in the Phillies' infield less than two years later was preposterous.

"It was a long season and I was excited to get home, collect myself, and get down to Florida and go to work," Asche said. "I was home for about 10 days to two weeks and I was excited to get back at it. I was excited that I got invited to the instructional league. I was excited to go down there and play some more and learn some more and keep going."

Asche is obviously an outstanding student. The Phillies' developmental staff left him alone during the Williamsport season, but went to work first on his load position before the swing when he got to Florida. It was a flaw first noticed and fixed by Steve Henderson, the Phillies' hitting instructor who was the organization's roving hitting instructor at the time.

"I think they knew about halfway through the Williamsport season that something had to be changed, but they weren't going to do that during the season," Asche said. "Obviously they let you play and get your at-bats and then [the adjustment] is what the instructional league is for. I think [the load position] was an important change that was made. I don't think that was the only thing. I just had to learn how to play and there is a lot of stuff you have to learn at-bat-wise that can only come with experience."

If Asche's rapid ascent to the big leagues seems unlikely, then Ruf's rise borders on miraculous. He was a 20th-round pick in 2009, and not the kind of high-ceiling, 20th-round pick that Domonic Brown had been three years before.

Ruf was a college kid from Creighton, a Jesuit school in Omaha, Neb. He played all four seasons in college because he wasn't drafted after his junior season, which is when the best college players are usually selected. He hit 27 home runs in his collegiate career, never more than eight in any one season.

But he hit for average, he could play first base, he was smart, and he was certainly worth a 20th-round draft pick. Guys like him, however, really have to open eyes to reach the big leagues, and he did that, of course, by hitting 20 home runs last August at double A on his way to breaking Ryan Howard's single-season home run record at Reading with 38.

The year before, Ruf wasn't even a blip on the prospect screen.

"I've never considered myself a prospect, so . . . definitely not at the end of [2011]," he said.

Ruf started 2010 at low-A Lakewood, but he was promoted to Clearwater in mid-May. The promotion came partly because he was hitting .330, but more so to accommodate Jonathan Singleton, a teenager considered to have a much higher ceiling.

Ruf hit .277 at Clearwater that year and was told he'd have to repeat that level in 2011. He was also told that he'd be splitting first-base duties with Joe Savery, a former first-round draft pick who was trying to make the move from pitcher to position player. More people were interested in what Savery did at the start of that season than what Ruf was doing.

He was again moved off first base when it was decided that Singleton could not make the adjustment to playing left field at Clearwater. Ruf continued to get at-bats as a designated hitter and he even made six starts in left field and one at third base. He also pitched 21/3 scoreless innings in a 23-inning game.

Singleton was traded to Houston at the end of July in the deal that brought Hunter Pence to the Phillies. Around that same time, Ruf had a conversation with John Mizerock, Clearwater's hitting instructor at the time.

"[Mizerock] kind of worked with me in a few different areas," Ruf said. "He made me figure out that I wasn't going to beat out too many infield singles and I started trying to drive the ball more."

Ruf hit 12 home runs in July and August, finishing the season with 17 while also hitting .308 with 43 doubles. The Phillies liked what they saw and sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where he played on a team with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. That was the first time Ruf thought the Phillies considered him a potential big-league player.

"I know the history that league has in producing players who go on to play in the major leagues," he said. "I took that opportunity really seriously. I tried to learn as much as I could there. That was the first time they made me feel like, 'Hey, you might be able to play at this level.' "

Asche and Ruf still have a lot to learn and a lot to prove if they are to become the next generation of baseball stars in Philadelphia, but they've provided a modicum of hope in a mostly gloomy season.


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com.

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