The Phillies' outlook for 2013 is still unclear for now, but it isn't going out on a limb to say that the last season-plus has been a relative low point in recent franchise history. The main reason why this has happened is simple: it's because of a lack of player development. There are exactly three players in MLB today who are under 30, spent significant time in the Phillies' farm system, and have had sustained success as major league starters: Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick, and Vance Worley. You just can't win that way. Ruben Amaro gets criticized for a lot of things (some fair, some not), but if the farm had developed more talent recently, it would have covered over a multitude of his other sins.
To put a finer point on it, if the farm system had been as productive under Amaro and Pat Gillick as it was under Ed Wade, then the team would still be a sure-fire playoff contender in 2013. Wade also got a lot of criticism when he was the GM (some fair, some not), but the indisputable fact is that in 1998, he inherited a terrible team with a barren farm system, and in 2005, he left behind a pretty good team with a lot of young homegrown talent (though it wasn't necessarily still on the farm at that point).
All that sort of begs the question: Why was Wade so much better at player development than Gillick or Amaro? That's actually a pretty tough question, because if you go back and look at historical prospect rankings, it doesn't seem as if Wade's performance should have been all that impressive - in fact, in some ways, it looks like it should have been worse than that of his two successors. Consider the following table:
|Year||GM||Head Scout||Baseball America Top 100 Prospects (Rank/Signing Year)|
|1998||Wade||Arbuckle||Ryan Brannan (58/1996)|
|1999||Wade||Arbuckle||Pat Burrell (19/1998), Marlon Anderson (83/1995), Randy Wolf (96/1997)|
|2000||Wade||Arbuckle||Burrell (2), Brad Baisley (52/1998), Jimmy Rollins (95/1996)|
|2001||Wade||Arbuckle||Rollins (31), Brett Myers (47/1999), Brad Baisley (78)|
|2002||Wade||Arbuckle||Marlon Byrd (26/1999), Myers (33), Gavin Floyd (56/2001)|
|2003||Wade||Arbuckle||Floyd (9), Byrd (63), Chase Utley (81/2000), Taylor Buchholz (88/2000)|
|2004||Wade||Arbuckle||Cole Hamels (17/2002), Floyd (23)|
|2005||Wade||Arbuckle||Ryan Howard (26/2001), Floyd (35), Hamels (71)|
|2006||Gillick||Arbuckle||Hamels (68), Gio Gonzalez (73/NA)|
|2007||Gillick||Arbuckle||Carlos Carrasco (41/2003)|
|2008||Gillick||Arbuckle||Carrasco (54), Adrian Cardenas (76/2006), Joe Savery (90/2007)|
|2009||Amaro||Wolever||Domonic Brown (48/2006), Carrasco (52), Lou Marson (66/2004), J. Donald (90/2006)|
|2010||Amaro||Wolever||Brown (15), Phillippe Aumont (93/NA)|
|2011||Amaro||Wolever||Brown (4), J. Singleton (39/2009), Brody Colvin (56/2009), Jarred Cosart (70/2008)|
|2012||Amaro||Wolever||Trevor May (69/2008)|
|2013||Amaro||Wolever||Jesse Biddle (89/2010), Roman Quinn (100/2011)
Not that Baseball America is 100% authoritative by any means, but their rankings do tend to be roughly in line with other experts' rankings, and clearly, they weren't any more impressed by the Phillies' prospects under Wade than they would later be under Gillick or Amaro. It doesn't seem that the Wade regime was any better at signing talent than his successors' regimes were/are.
But apparently, once Wade found a talent, that talent almost invariably blossomed. From 1999-2005, only one of the Phillies' twelve top prospects (pitcher Baisley, who was felled by arm injuries) failed to have any success in the majors, and only two of the others (Anderson and Buchholz) failed to become good major league starters (though they both did enjoy a little bit of success as major league reserves). That rate of attrition, or lack thereof, is really very remarkable, especially when you consider that only two of the prospects in that group ever even appeared in BA's top 10.
Compare that to what's happened since 2007 (one year after Wade's dismissal). Thirteen Phillies prospects have appeared on BA's Top 100. Exactly none have established themselves as good major league starters. Now, of course, that isn't a completely fair comparison. The book has yet to be closed on most of these guys (as well as on others like Anthony Gose and Travis D'Arnaud who don't appear in the table only because they were traded before they could break into the BA rankings). Dom Brown, in particular, seems to be on the very cusp of success. But it still seems like a pretty disturbing dropoff.
So the obvious million-dollar question is: what's the explanation for this? Unfortunately, there's really no way for us to know with facts that are publicly available, so this is the part of the post where I'm going to turn this into a pure exercise in hypothesizing. Here are three possibilities.
First, of course, it could have been luck. That's undoubtedly the best theory. We're dealing with very small samples here, and baseball prospecting is one of the most inexact sciences known to man. Maybe the Phillies under Wade just happened to roll a bunch of sevens. But while that's very plausible and easy to grasp, it doesn't have to be an exclusive explanation. It could have been partly luck and partly other factors.
Second, it could have been the result of differences in instruction. I'm not so much hypothesizing that the Phillies' minor league instructional staff was of better quality under Wade than it has been since, although I suppose that's possible. What I'm really getting at is this: Wade was always very reluctant to trade away any of his prospects. In fact, toward the end of his tenure as GM, he was mercilessly bashed on talk radio for his refusal to deal guys like Utley, Howard, and Floyd for established veterans like Kris Benson and Barry Zito. And while he did trade a few prospects such as Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio later in his tenure, it was like pulling teeth. If an organization is that disinclined to trade prospects, then that could affect the incentives of its instructional staff. If you're confident that a prospect is going to be with the organization for the long haul, then you have an unalloyed incentive to maximize his long-term success. If his game has a few weaknesses, then you might make him work on those weaknesses in game situations all season long. That could hurt his stats or his rank on prospect lists, but you won't care about that. In contrast, the more open an organization is to trading prospects, the more you'll care about his current stats and the less you'll care about his long-term development. Why not let him play exclusively to his strengths if that allows him to tear up Florida State League pitching? He may not improve as much, but his ranking and his trade value will improve. If that's what you care about, then that's what you'll seek.
Third, it could be explained by differences in advancement philosophy. I'm sure there's far too much water under the bridge at this point to find a link to support this, but I think those of you who are old enough to remember Wade's tenure will back me up when I say that the Phillies at that time had a rather explicit default policy of moving their top prospects up through the minors at a rate of exactly one level per year. Since Wade's departure, that policy seems to have fallen by the wayside, at least in the front office's rhetoric.
Admittedly, that's a highly unscientific way of establishing that there actually has been a policy change since Wade left. Unfortunately, I don't know if it's even possible to prove or disprove, with any statistical rigor, whether such a change occurred. The sample sizes are just too small, and since every prospect is a unique individual, there are too many shades of grey. For instance, even Ed Wade felt compelled to give Ryan Howard a midseason promotion out of Reading after Howard hit 37 homers in 102 games - that doesn't necessarily disprove anything about his general philosophy on prospect advancement.
But if, for the sake of argument, it really was Wade's philosophy to keep his prospects on a more rigid track for advancement, then I can see how that might have helped those affected by it. Again, it has to do with shifting incentives. Every prospect wants to get to the majors as fast as he can. If he can speed things up by improving his stats, then improving his stats will be his highest priority. But if a prospect knows that posting great stats won't necessarily get him to the big leagues any faster, then it creates a different balance of priorities. No doubt, his stats will still be very important to him. But in relative terms, it will be less important than it would have been, while other goals - such as pleasing his coaches and improving weaknesses in his game - will become more important than they would have been.
Will every player benefit from such a shift in priorities? Not necessarily. Again, every prospect is unique. Some might very well be best served by getting to the majors as soon as possible. But maybe - maybe - guys like Utley, Howard, and the rest of the core players who came through the farm under Wade were well served by the take-it-slow approach. It's worth considering when you think about where to lay blame for any difficulties the Phillies are facing right now. And, I should note, it's also worth considering when you see guys like Jesse Biddle or Aaron Altherr excelling at their current levels in the minors - before you start clamoring for their immediate promotion, think.