Former Cutter Hewitt in make-or-break year

READING – Anthony Hewitt stood amongst his teammates, relaxed as could be, hiding along the wall. His teammates were being poked and prodded, asked about the details of their lives as professional baseball players, and there Hewitt stood idly by in the batting tunnel at FirstEnergy Stadium.

It’s not that the former Philadelphia Phillies’ first-round draft pick has become an afterthought in the organization’s minor league system. But his production in four years as a professional baseball player just hasn’t matched the potential.

So while reporters and television crews flocked to the newest crop of the Phillies’ top prospects, Hewitt patiently waited for his life with the Class AA Reading Fightin Phils to get underway. There has never been a question about the raw physical tools of Hewitt. Drafted 24th overall in 2008, Hewitt flashed those tools in Williamsport for the Crosscutters in 2009, hitting seven home runs, driving in 30 runs, and hitting three triples.

But the faults that have made Hewitt fall out of the discussion as one of the top Phillies’ prospects were also ever evident. He struck out 77 times in 61 games, the fourth-highest total in Williamsport short-season history. He committed 26 errors at third base that year for the Cutters, a total which forced his move to the outfield as he’s climbed the organizational ladder.

Despite all the negatives in Hewitt’s game, he spoke confidently about himself earlier this week. He knows what his short-comings are as a player, but he feels like he’s better prepared to handle this level of baseball.

“I’m mentally stronger than I’ve ever been,” said Hewitt, who opened up Reading’s season Thursday night hitting ninth in the order and playing right field. “Why? Failure. Failure does that to you. Failure makes you appreciate the little things. It makes you strengthen your mind because that’s what makes or breaks you.”

The game has never been about physical limitations for Hewitt. The Brooklyn native was drafted out of Salisbury Prep in Connecticut as a shortstop with elite speed and power at the plate. But even early on it was easy to see his was a raw player and a work-in-progress.

He struggled to recognize breaking balls – and trait which continues even to this day – and struggled with good, hard fastballs. But then there were the times when he would get a hold of one of those fastballs. The sound of the ball coming off his bat was different. It made you believe again why he was a first-round pick.

He was a boom-or-bust pick, a real risk in the back end of the first round. And the Phillies paid $1.38 million to sign him away from his commitment to play baseball at Vanderbilt University. But the raw tools are too good to ignore.

Even now as he’s struck out 443 times in his three years in full-season baseball, and never had a batting average over .241 for a full season, there’s still hope that one of those tools could lead him to Philadelphia.

“The physical aspect has always been there, and everyone has seen that,” Hewitt said. “But in order to operate the physical abilities that you have, you have to get into it mentally.”

Each summer since he signed with the Phillies there have been weeks where he puts everything together and gives fans and Phillies front office staff hopes that he’s capable of being the player everyone thought he could be. But it’s usually only a few-weeks trend, never a sustained success.

There’s no doubt in Hewitt’s mind, though, that he is the player who shows up from time to time to dominate leagues. He was named the No. 13 prospect in the Gulf Coast League by Baseball America in 2008. Follow his up-and-down year in 2009 in Williamsport, he was named the No. 11 prospect in the New-York Penn League.

For maybe the first time, though, Hewitt understands what he needs to do to potentially be the player the raw tools say he could be. It’s something he’s done before, but never consciously.

“You have to play out of your mind,” Hewitt said. “It’s literally just letting your body trust itself to perform and not trying to take control. Just play. Know that all the hard work I’ve put in will show for itself. I don’t have to force it. I’ve done it before, I just didn’t know what I was doing.”

He’s tried to force the issue offensively for much of his career. As free a swinger as there is in the Phillies’ organization, his walk rate has improved ever so slightly each of the last three years, and his strikeout rate has fallen.

And if you’re looking for that ray of hope in his game, he’s had a .326 batting average when he puts the ball in play each of the last two years, meaning when he puts the ball in play, he has a penchant for getting on base. But that comes with a caveat, of course.

He’s never had an on-base percentage above .281, and he’s never had an OPS which reached .700. And on top of that, he’s averaging more than a strikeout per game for his career.

“Big leaguers will tell you that that off-speed stuff is good. A lot of people swing at those pitches, not just me,” Hewitt said. “At the end of the day, you have to tip your hat to the pitcher, too, because he’s getting paid to get us out.”

This is a make-or-break year for Hewitt, whether he chooses to believe it or not. He’ll be a minor league free agent after this season.

He feels no pressure, though. He’s facing likely the toughest competition of his life in a season that could define his tenure as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies organization, and as a professional baseball player.

“Honestly, there’s no pressure. None at all,” Hewitt said. “I’ve got nothing to lose. I trust in myself. I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.”