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A Process You Can Trust

Five years after the Phillies fell apart, two GMs and a host of talented newcomers are putting the team back together again

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Phillies were supposed to be terrible this year: a hodgepodge of unproven rookies and dinosaurs playing out the string, plus some just plain bad players mixed in for variety. Among many others, the projection system at Baseball Prospectus picked Philadelphia to finish with the worst record in baseball.

Instead, behind one of the most exciting young pitching staffs in baseball, Philadelphia sits at 26–26, 5.5 games out of first place in the NL East. But as unexpected and fascinating as that hot start is, it’s only raised more questions — the most immediate of which is: Is this team actually any good?

Except, that’s not particularly important, and we’ll come back to it later.

Here’s the real question: How did this happen?

Success, as the saying goes, has many fathers, and the 2016 Phillies are no different. The rebuild spans two distinct front-office regimes. Ownership installed former Twins, Cubs, and Orioles executive Andy MacPhail as an adviser last June, and in September he axed incumbent GM Rubén Amaro Jr. MacPhail became team president after the season, and he replaced Amaro with 35-year-old Angels assistant GM Matt Klentak.

While MacPhail and Klentak have pushed a lot of the right buttons since taking over, they inherited a process — to use a word more commonly attached to the Sixers — that had already been in progress for years. Just like their neighbors across the parking lot, the Phillies are on a path that has involved multiple leadership groups, has frustrated and flummoxed observers, and will not be fully complete for years to come. There’s a promising ending in sight, but to find the start of this process, you have to go back farther than you might think.

January 13, 2010

Phillies sign Maikel Franco for $100,000.

When the Phillies made the first move of this rebuild, they were the two-time defending National League champions, a season removed from a World Series title, and Ruben Amaro was only about a year into his tenure as general manager. Roy Halladay had yet to throw a pitch for the team. Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence were still Astros. Cole Hamels was a local pariah. And Ryan Howard was more than three months from signing his ill-fated $125 million contract extension.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, barely anyone noticed when the Phillies signed 17-year-old Dominican infielder Maikel Franco for $100,000. There’s still no draft for such players, so Latin American teenagers enter the big league pipeline through international free agency. Major League Baseball restricts the age of signees (16 or older) and what bonuses they can receive. Apart from scouts and the most devoted fans, the only time these signings make major news is when a Cuban blue-chipper like Yoan Moncada gets an eight-figure deal, or when the elite 16-year-old Dominicans sign the day they’re eligible. But for every potential star like Moncada or Miguel Sano or Nomar Mazara, there are dozens, even hundreds, of anonymous teenagers who don’t sign for seven figures. Some take a few thousand dollars at 16, while others hang around the Caribbean for years before catching on with a team, if they ever do.

For the past decade, the Phillies have seldom splashed big money on international amateurs. They gave Carlos Tocci $759,000 in 2011, then gave Luis Encarnacion an even $1 million in 2013 before signing Jhailyn Ortiz for $4 million last year, but apart from those three, they’ve fished with a net rather than a line, scooping up 17- to 20-year-olds, like Franco, for cheaper.

A two-time consensus top-100 prospect in the minors, Franco hit .280/.343/.497 in 335 plate appearances as a rookie in 2015, becoming a fan favorite thanks to his quick hands at the plate and strong throwing arm in the field. He’s started 2016 in a little bit of a sophomore slump, and is currently hitting .253/.299/.430, but just like Pat Burrell did 15 years before, Franco signifies hope for the future as the first of a new wave of prospects to reach the big leagues.

He’s not the only player the Phillies picked up for peanuts after more than a year on ice in the Dominican Republic, either. On April 29, 2010 — three days after Howard signed his extension — the Phillies signed 20-year-old Hector Neris, who had nearly fallen through the cracks altogether, for $17,000. Neris is now the Phillies’ eighth-inning guy, striking out 11.9 batters per nine innings this year. In January 2013, the Phillies gave $40,000 to 17-year-old Franklyn Kilome, who was the team’s no. 4 prospect heading into the 2016 season, according to BP. In 2014, another 17-year-old pitcher, Adonis Medina, took a $70,000 signing bonus. He’s now somewhere between the ninth- and 20th-best prospect in the Phillies’ system, depending on whose rankings you go by.

June 6, 2013

Phillies draft J.P. Crawford no. 16 overall out of Lakewood High School in California.

While former GM Pat Gillick gets a lot of the credit for assembling the World Series–winning team in 2008, most of the core of that group was acquired through the draft by his predecessors, Lee Thomas and Ed Wade. From 1996 to 2002, the Phillies drafted Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, Ryan Madson, Brett Myers, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Cole Hamels. In other words, two of the team’s top three starting pitchers, its primary setup man, and four of the first five hitters in the batting order by the time the 2008 playoffs came around.

While that draft-built core was the cause of so much success from 2007 to 2011, the team spent the next four years in turmoil because the next generation of homegrown stars never showed up. Under Gillick and his successor, Amaro, the Phillies suffered nearly a decade of legendarily bad drafts.

Of course, when you win a lot of games, your draft position makes it tough to nail the draft every year, and the Phillies picked 16th overall or worse every year from 2002 to 2013. (They also effectively spent their first-round picks in 2003, 2005, 2009, 2011, and 2012 on compensation for signing free agents.) From 2003 to 2012, the average position of the Phillies’ first draft pick was 27th overall, and in seven of those 10 years, the Phillies spent their first pick on a high schooler. In those 10 years, the Phillies had six compensatory picks, and they used all six of those picks on high schoolers, as well.

You can live off high school draftees, but only if you’re good at scouting and developing them, which the Phillies were not. Some of those prep players made valuable trade assets — Travis d’Arnaud and Kyle Drabek essentially brought back Roy Halladay. But most of the picks were toolsy teenagers who needed to refine their skills in order to hack it in the pros, and most never did.

The Phillies took Anthony Hewitt no. 24 overall in 2008, amidst widespread praise of his athleticism but widespread concerns over his lack of a hit tool. He never developed one, and never got past Double-A. In 2010, they took local left-hander Jesse Biddle no. 27 overall, then watched as, over the next five years, his development was sidetracked by inconsistency, illness, and — in a twist out of A Serious Man — a concussion suffered when he was hit on the head with a hailstone. In 2011, which featured one of the best draft classes of the century, the Phillies reached for Georgia high schooler Larry Greene at no. 39 overall. Greene struggled to stay in shape, but in a three-year pro career that ended in the South Atlantic League, he didn’t hit enough for it to matter even if he had.

In 2013, the Phillies took another high schooler in the first round, but rather than a raw multi-sport athlete with questions about his skill set, they snapped up a polished two-way shortstop who fell to them at no. 16: J.P. Crawford. On the night of the draft, ESPN’s Chris Crawford (no relation) wrote of the Lakewood, California, product: “Crawford was considered by most to be the best shortstop prospect in this class, and a player that most believe will stick at the position despite only average speed.”

Crawford, who’s the cousin of Dodgers outfielder Carl Crawford, has since turned into — by far — the team’s top prospect and a top-five prospect in all of baseball. He’s the latest in a line of would-be superstar shortstops that included last year’s crop of Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Corey Seager.

While Crawford might end up being the best player on the Phillies’ next great team, his selection isn’t where the franchise turned around its decade-long history of bad drafts. No, that came in 2014. In a draft full of exciting, toolsy, high-ceiling, low-floor prospects, the Phillies selected perhaps the safest player in the draft, LSU right-hander Aaron Nola, with the no. 7 pick. Once notorious for betting big on raw high schoolers, the Phillies ended up taking college players with 27 of their first 28 picks two years ago.

The top of the 2014 draft was split between high schoolers with big potential and college performers with long track records. The top two picks, high school pitchers Brady Aiken and Tyler Kolek, have both had Tommy John surgery since the draft. No. 6 overall pick Alex Jackson, also a high schooler, has been brutal in parts of three pro seasons. Meanwhile, of the six college players drafted in the top 10, four (Carlos Rodon, Kyle Schwarber, Michael Conforto, and Nola) reached the majors last year and contributed immediately.

Nola’s had a plus curveball and plus command since his early days at LSU, and he’s been the Phillies’ best pitcher pretty much since the moment he was called up last July: a 123 ERA+ over 23 starts, striking out almost a batter per inning and 4.45 per walk.

Despite Nola’s performance, the rest of Philadelphia’s 2014 draft has been lackluster, and at the end of the 2014 season the Phillies cashiered longtime scouting director Marti Wolever. Whether Wolever’s last few drafts eventually pay dividends in the middle rounds — or whether his successor, Johnny Almaraz, does better — remains to be seen, but as of right now, the Phillies look like they got something real out of their first picks in 2013 and 2014. It may be a low bar to clear, but after a decade of getting nothing out of their top picks, it feels like a sea change.

December 11, 2014

Phillies select Odubel Herrera from Texas in the Rule 5 draft.

Wade’s front office drafted Hamels, Utley, Howard, and most of the core of the 2008 Phillies. Wade hired Charlie Manuel and oversaw the transition from bottom-feeder to contender. But Pat Gillick took the Phillies to the playoffs, and won the World Series. What’s the difference?

Luck, for one thing. The collapse of the Atlanta Braves dynasty and the Mets’ repeated late-season histrionics, for another. But what set Gillick apart was his ability to find valuable players for close to nothing. He had a run of post-deadline trades and waiver claims in the mid-2000s that rivaled the franchise’s draft success from 1996 to 2002.

In August 2006, Gillick swapped two guys you’ve never heard of for Jamie Moyer, who won 56 games in five seasons in Philadelphia. He signed a post-hype sleeper named Jayson Werth in December 2006 for $850,000 and watched him turn into a star. He picked J.C. Romero and Chad Durbin off the scrap heap and watched them turn into dominant relievers in 2008. He plucked key bench bat Greg Dobbs off the waiver wire. Taken together, those moves put the Phillies over the top.

Getty Images
Getty Images

One of Amaro’s last key acquisitions was a similar low-risk deal: the selection of Odubel Herrera in the Rule 5 draft. An afterthought in the Texas Rangers farm system, Herrera was a 22-year-old second baseman with a swing that you would call unorthodox only if you were interested in using “unorthodox” as a euphemism for “ugly as hell.” In a system that already had more young middle infielders than the big league club could use, Herrera missed the 40-man roster and the Phillies snapped him up.

Since the Phillies were absolutely terrible in 2015, Herrera suddenly found himself in the lineup during his first year with the club, batting second and playing center field on Opening Day. He hit .297/.344/.418 for a 110 wRC+ with 16 stolen bases in 147 games and was probably the team’s best position player. This year, Herrera’s completely changed his game — not just improved in his second full year, but reinvented himself. His 2015 OBP of .344, built mostly on a high batting average, was fine in this day and age, but Herrera was a little bit of a hacker, walking only 5.2 percent of the time. So far in 2016, he’s become one of the league’s most patient hitters. Herrera is now seeing 4.39 pitches per plate appearance, up from 4.01 as a rookie, and he’s nearly tripled his walk rate to 15.2 percent, seventh best in baseball. Last year, he walked about as frequently as the notoriously hack-y Evan Gattis. This year he’s walking more frequently than the famously patient Joey Votto, and Herrera’s hitting .319/.424/.445 overall.

Herrera is the kind of low-risk, high-reward pickup that makes up another pillar of the Phillies’ rebuild. The same offseason the Phillies liberated Herrera from Texas, Amaro signed free-agent reliever Jeanmar Gómez for $800,000. Gómez pitched well in 2015, and came into 2016 as the team’s closer. He’s now tied for the major league lead in saves.

After Amaro picked up Herrera and Gómez, Klentak continued to buy reclamation projects and post-hype sleepers by the bushel. This past offseason, he went to the Rule 5 well to grab Rays outfielder Tyler Goeddel, who’s established himself as an everyday player with a .300/.355/.471 mark in May. Free-agent right-handers David Hernández and Andrew Bailey have held down the middle innings for about $4.5 million combined. And because Klentak was willing to take on Jeremy Hellickson’s $7 million salary, he was able to pry the veteran right-hander from Arizona for the low price of Sam McWilliams, the lone high schooler the Phillies drafted in the first 28 rounds of the 2014 draft. While McWilliams waits for his full-season professional debut, Hellickson’s been a league-average starter for the Phillies so far.

These successes necessarily come along with a host of failures, and the 2016 Phillies are full of examples of sleepers who might never wake up: David Lough hasn’t worked out that well so far. Neither have Emmanuel Burriss, Peter Bourjos, and James Russell. But when you’ve got money and plate appearances to spend — and no expectations — you can always troll the waiver wire and the trading block for a replacement.

July 29, 2015

Phillies trade Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman to Texas for Nick Williams, Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher, Jorge Alfaro, Jake Thompson, and Matt Harrison.

Amaro, and now Klentak, tinkered so much around the edges because the manner in which Philadelphia’s last successful run ended didn’t give them much choice. Their stars didn’t leave in free agency; they got old and lost most of their trade value. In mid-2012, Halladay was slipping, Howard and Utley missed half the season, and the Phillies entered July in last place, more than 10 games out of first. Once it was clear the good times had come to an end, Amaro shifted to sell mode relatively quickly. Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, and Joe Blanton went out the door that summer. Over the next three years, old guys, stopgaps, free agents–to-be, and malcontents were shipped out for midlevel prospects, but nobody you’d put on a global top-100 list.

By mid-2015, the Phillies had two trump cards to play: Cole Hamels and Ken Giles. Both were absolute top-level pitchers, under team control for years to come, and despite enormous media and fan pressure to trade them — particularly Hamels — sooner rather than later, Amaro waited until the pot was sweet enough.

The deal for Hamels brought back the team’s current nos. 2, 3, and 8 prospects according to BP: Williams, Thompson, and Alfaro, respectively. Amaro couldn’t get Mazara or Joey Gallo, Texas’s top two prospects, but he got a future above-average corner outfielder in Williams, a potential mid-rotation starter in Thompson, and a freak athlete with an elite throwing arm and plus power, either at catcher or in the outfield, in Alfaro. It’s on the strength of this trade that BP ranked the Phillies’ farm system fourth in baseball coming into this season.

Then there’s Eickhoff, who’d been relatively anonymous in the Rangers’ system. He was a 15th-round pick who had never appeared on a global top-100 prospect list, and at the time of the trade was a 25-year-old who had a 4.25 ERA in Triple-A. Eickhoff arrived in Philly as an afterthought, but soon made the leap. When the Phillies called him up in late August 2015, he was near-dominant, sporting a slider that’s generated a swing and miss about once every four times he’s thrown it over his career — that’s where Clayton Kershaw and Noah Syndergaard live. He’s already a league-average starter, and he was the fourth-biggest piece in the trade.

Then, four and a half months after the Hamels deal, Klentak got his big hand and went all in, trading Giles to the Astros, along with shortstop Jonathan Arauz, for five pitchers: Vincent Velasquez, Mark Appel, Brett Oberholtzer, Thomas Eshelman, and Harold Arauz.

This is probably not as big a steal as it currently appears. Giles, who’s had a rough start to 2016, is coming off a pair of elite seasons and should straighten himself out. Oberholtzer’s a mop-up arm. Eshelman, the best control pitcher in the history of college baseball, still has to prove he can get professional hitters to swing and miss at his stuff. Appel, talented though he may be, has been a shell of the player who went first overall in 2013, plus he just hurt his shoulder. Also, the Astros got the better Arauz.

All that said, Velasquez can do this:

So far in 2016, the Phillies’ biggest strength has been their three young starters: Nola, Velasquez, and Eickhoff. Among those three arms, the most exciting single skill isn’t Nola’s command or Eickhoff’s slider; it’s Velasquez’s fastball, an easy 94–97 mph velocity that comes out of his hand like a two-stage rocket. It’s the kind of fastball that should be physically impossible. Maybe Velasquez, who came up as a fastball-changeup guy, never develops an above-average breaking ball, or he can’t hold up for 200 innings (his career single-season high as a pro is 124 ⅔), but even if that’s the case, and even if Appel and Eshelman never amount to anything, we know, right now, that Velasquez can be an effective big league closer. Since he’s younger, cheaper, and under team control for longer than Giles, the trade is already a win for the Phillies, with the potential to grow into an even bigger victory.

Let’s revisit that earlier question: How did this happen? The Phillies developed overlooked talent from Latin America, stopped a decade-long run of franchise-cripplingly bad drafts, picked up a few bargains more or less for free, and nailed two of the biggest trades in recent franchise history.

Now let’s go back to the other questions.

Are they any good?

Sort of. The Phillies were supposed to be one of the worst teams in baseball, and through two months, they’ve played like one of the best. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle. Since starting 24–17, the Phillies have lost nine of their last 11 games. Thanks to the struggles of Franco, they’re currently below average at every position except pitcher, center field (Herrera), and catcher, which is manned by the ursine but ultimately replacement-level Cameron Rupp and the 37-year-old Carlos Ruiz, so who wants odds on that continuing? Right now, this is a team with a few good players and a lot of extremely bad players, a team that could make the playoffs, but probably won’t.

Does that matter?

Absolutely not. The past two months are the result of a series of decisions and transactions that stretches back more than six years, and winning right now is hardly the team’s main concern. Look at the baseball operations department MacPhail and Klentak have assembled: The Phillies currently employ two former managers and two former GMs (three if you count former interim GM and current assistant GM Scott Proefrock) in advisory roles. Short-term projects don’t require that level of institutional memory.

The Phillies are still assembling the next version of the team. Right now, they’ve got a good center fielder, a good third baseman, three or four good starting pitchers, and a couple of decent relievers. That’s a start, but there are still a lot of holes.

Now consider this list of names: Tocci, Ortiz, Williams, Thompson, Alfaro, Knapp, Crawford, Kilome, Medina, Appel, Eshelman. They all stand to contribute to the big league club but have yet to play a regular-season game in the majors. Only a couple of years after the franchise hit rock bottom, the Phillies have a decent big league team right now, a top-five farm system, and the no. 1 pick in the draft next week. They also have an ownership group that’s been willing to spend almost all the way to the luxury tax in the past, along with only $24.5 million in payroll commitments past this year and just $2 million in commitments in 2018.

That combination of young talent and financial flexibility brings up one last question.

Will the Phillies be good soon?

For the first time in five years, the answer is yes.

All stats are current through Tuesday afternoon.