Ford: Is Dylan Cozens the slugger Phillies are waiting for?

Dylan Cozens (middle).

There is a lot about the game of baseball that Phillies outfield prospect Dylan Cozens still needs to learn, a fact he readily embraces. Cozens does have one thing figured out, though.

"I got to see how cool it is to have a good year, and I realized that if I hit 40 home runs every year, life's going to be pretty good," said Cozens, who did, in fact, hit 40 homers for double-A Reading in 2016, winning the Joe Bauman Award as the most prolific home-run hitter in the minor leagues.

Cozens broke Darin Ruf's record of 38 home runs at Reading, set in 2012, and it was Ruf who broke Ryan Howard's record of 37 homers at Reading, set in 2004. If there is a cautionary tale to be found in Cozens' success, the career trajectories of those two other players probably tells it.

FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading is a renowned launching pad that must be factored into player evaluation. Cozens and teammate Rhys Hoskins put on a show in 2016, with Hoskins finishing at 38 home runs. It's not a bad way to get noticed, and both players were invited to be part of a Phillies life seminar session on Wednesday aimed to help groom about a dozen of the organization's most promising prospects.

"From the perspective of qualifying the numbers, it obviously impacts the numbers," Joe Jordan, the team's director of player development, said of the Reading factor. "In 2015, Dylan really improved as a hitter . . . and he hit eight home runs on the year and no one was talking about him. Then in 2016, he hits 40 home runs, drives in 125, strikes out 180-something times [186]. I think the answer is somewhere in the middle."

To hit those 40 home runs - 29 of which came in Reading - Cozens sacrificed 10 points on his batting average from the previous season, and his strikeouts went from one every five plate appearances to one every three plate appearances. This coming season, he is expected to start at triple-A Lehigh Valley, and the business of determining exactly who Cozens will become begins in earnest. The list of players who have hit at least 20 home runs in recent seasons for Reading includes names like Matt Rizzotti, Jeff Inglin, and Tagg Bozied. Cozens will be trying to show that his numbers last season weren't another Reading mirage.

"I'm excited. I've got to prove them wrong, and there's nothing wrong with that. That's what motivates a lot of people, and I'm looking forward to doing the same thing I did this year," said Cozens, who will turn 23 in May. "I try to focus on just getting better every day. I've grown so much from being a rookie to now. Every aspect of my game can get better, some more than others. There's always something to work on."

At 6-foot-6, the lefthanded-hitting Cozens can have a loopy swing that makes it difficult to hit breaking balls. His splits against lefthanded pitching also need to improve, and he's coming off a difficult stretch in Dominican winter ball during which he batted .165 and got into an altercation that left a teammate with five stitches.

"It wasn't a big deal. We're good friends. We went out and played the next day. It wasn't like a bad incident that broke up the team or any drama like that," Cozens said. "It was different [there]. I didn't perform how I wanted to perform, but it happens. I'm going to try to make up for it this year."

The Phillies are starving for power at the moment. Regarding a prospect who just hit 40 home runs, they don't really care if he did it in a phone booth. Cozens is being fast-tracked, and he could possibly make it to the big club before the end of 2017, but he'll have to find the sweet spot between hitting home runs at all costs and losing too much aggressiveness at the plate.

"For those of us who have been here since he came in as a high school player in 2012, there's been so much growth," Jordan said. "He's a very coachable young man. He's had a lot put on him. He's tried to do exactly what we've asked. In 2015, I told him: 'To hell with power. You're going to have power. I want you to be a better hitter.' And he hit [.286] on the year, and it takes discipline to do that. This past year, he turned it loose and did what he did."

The organization let him enjoy it. This time around, at a higher level facing better pitchers, in Allentown's less-hitter-friendly Coca-Cola Park, with the scouts and team executives watching very closely to see whether he really has it, Cozens will try to drive doubts about him into the seats.

"I'd like to get here as soon as possible," Cozens said as he stood in the Phillies' clubhouse on Wednesday. "It's not something I worry about. I know I'll be there when the time is right. If I keep going out there, putting up numbers and winning ball games, I'm sure I'll be there soon enough."

Forty home runs a year makes for a good life. There's no denying that. Dylan Cozens can see that from where he is and knows he is very close. His job this season is to make sure he doesn't become one of those guys who only gets close.