Brownout: or, the Phillies' "Rookie Problem"

This story is a bit of a bummer, so we figured a nice pic of CLIFF LEE doing his thing might help it go down easier. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

 

Black humor nods to the baseball gods aside, it’s way, way too early to give up on Domonic Brown, unless his hand fracture somehow leads to an amputation. What we can say for sure, though, is that the team’s consensus top prospect won’t be in the Opening Day lineup, and it’s probably now less than even odds he’ll take the majority of at-bats in right field for the Phillies this year. Thus will continue a surprising and increasingly concerning multi-year streak in which no Phils rookie has seen serious time in the team’s regular lineup.

It’s one thing to be the oldest team in the game, as the Phils are; it’s another simply to get out of the habit of breaking in new talent. The 2010 club featured only one regular under age 30—Shane Victorino, age 29—and no rookie who got more plate appearances than Brown’s 70. That was actually the biggest number in three years; John Mayberry Jr. led the 2009 team with 60 plate appearances, and the top positional rookie on the 2008 World Champs was the immortal Mike Cervenak, a 31 year old who recorded the only 13 plate appearances of his career to date that September.

We have to go back to 2007 to find the last two Phillies rookies who came to the plate more than 100 times. Carlos Ruiz, who had made a cameo late in 2006, became the more or less regular catcher that season once the team got past its weird fixation with Rod Barajas, making 429 plate appearances. And reserve outfielder Michael Bourn made 133 plate appearances in addition to frequent pinch-running and defensive substitution duties. Ruiz was 28 that season, and Bourn was traded in the Brad Lidge deal that winter.

 

(The situation has been a bit better on the pitching side, but not much. J.A. Happ was the Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2009, but at 26 he was a pretty old rookie as well, and a year later the team traded him for Roy Oswalt. Antonio Bastardo still hasn’t quite cemented his status as a big-leaguer, and Scott Mathieson seems stuck in quad-A purgatory. This might shake out next year as Justin De Fratus, Michael Schwimer, Michael Stutes and others start to push their way into the bullpen picture, but for now the pitchers are about as old as the hitters.)

Of course, the biggest reason no rookie has cracked the Phillies’ lineup in four years is because previous generations of young talent—starting with Jimmy Rollins in 2001 and concluding with Victorino (who wasn’t homegrown, but finished his minor-league apprenticeship with the Phils) in 2006 and Ruiz in 2007, have been so good and, at least until 2010, so durable. That said, in building its Rotation of Doom, the team has traded away a few position players who might have found playing time, including infielders Adrian Cardenas and Jason Donald and outfielder Michael Taylor. (Cardenas and Taylor, both now with the Athletics, have yet to make their major league debuts, but it’s not a stretch to imagine that one or both would have shown up with the injury-ravaged 2010 Phillies had they not been dealt.)

Where the dearth of usable young talent really has shown up is on the balance sheet. The Phillies are now the second-most expensive team in the game—as generally is the case when you’re paying guys with accumulated service time. I’m not shedding a tear for the strain on the Phillies’ books; they obviously have it to spend. But with a year left on Raul Ibanez’s contract, it would be nice if Brown—or Tyson Gillies, or someone—were ready by next spring; the pending decision on Jimmy Rollins likewise would be easier if Freddy Galvis could hit.

While the Phillies are the oldest team in the bigs by average age, it’s not quite fair to call them an "old" team: most of the stars are at the end of their prime years, with Rollins, Ruiz and Chase Utley all 32, Ryan Howard 31, and Victorino 30. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Oswalt all will turn 33 or 34 this season, as will Lidge. There’s Ibanez (soon to be 39) and Jose Contreras (God only knows), but having two guys on the far side of 35 for a contender isn’t unusual.

The problem is that the longer a team goes without replenishing their talent pool from within, the harder and more disruptive it becomes to do so. Beyond Brown, and assuming that Gillies and Phillippe Aumont don’t recapture their top-prospect form, the next bunch of really exciting Phils farmhands are at least two or three years away; if reinforcements aren’t found in the meantime, by the time they get there, the glory days of 2007-10 might be obscured by a few very expensive, very disappointing campaigns. Get well soon, Dom.

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