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Minor Thoughts-- July 7, 2005

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The first installment in what will be a weekly feature here at The Good Phight, Minor Thoughts will take a far more critical and analytical look at the six teams that combine to make up the Phillies farm system.

In this week's piece, I examine the drastic decline in overall farm success since a change was made in late 2001 to promote Marti Wolever to scouting director, the position which was formerly held for a number of years by current Phillies assistant GM, Mike Arbuckle. How did this happen? Who should be blamed?

Finally, a weekly feature will be a player spotlight, someone in the system who isn't quite as high on the collective radars of Phans, perhaps, and this week I profile 26-year-old lefty Eude Brito, whose success since becoming a starter is noteworthy for those wondering about potential help in the future.

Under most circumstances, a baseball franchise does not, and should not, place great emphasis on the win-loss records of its minor-league affiliates.  The primary goal of a farm system is to develop prospects; individual team success is secondary (although development in a winning environment certainly will not hurt.)  However, the downturn in the Phils' system on both fronts over the past two and a half seasons by our minor-league teams has been extreme enough to warrant the questioning of the ability of those in charge -- specifically, Marti Wolever, the Phillies' director of scouting.

From 2000 to 2002, the Phillies' minor-league winning percentage was a very impressive .532 (1111-977).  All of the players in the system at that point had been either drafted or signed as free agents by Wolever's predecessor Mike Arbuckle, who received a promotion to Assistant GM in October 2001.  In the years since, that number has dipped significantly to .452 (773-938), with the current season being, by far, the worst of the three: as of July 2, the Phillies' organizational winning percentage stood at an embarrassingly low .400 (134-201).

I used 2003-2005 data to represent the Wolever era despite the fact that he was named scouting director late in 2001.  I did this because the first crop of players he drafted wouldn't have entered the system until midway through 2002, meaning that any successes or failures would have been more attributable to Arbuckle.  I considered not including 2003 either, but I decided to based on the fact that the winning percentage of teams with mostly "Wolever players" (Lakewood in low A, Batavia in short-season rookie ball, and the rookie level GCL squad) was .409 (110-159), terrible even when compared to the pedestrian .496 (207-210) combined percentage of teams that would still have been heavy on "Arbuckle players" (Clearwater in high A, Reading in AA, and Scranton).

My goal, however, is not to rail solely on Marti Wolever; in his defense, there have been extenuating circumstances that absolutely have affected these numbers-most notably that he has had only five selections above the third round in four drafts (the Phils lost their first- and second-round picks in 2003 for the Thome/Bell signings and their 2005 first-rounder for Jon Lieber.) Wolever can't be faulted for that; it's yet another black mark on Ed Wade's pretty much completely darkened record.  Similarly, the failure to sign talented players like Jordan Parraz (6th round, 2003) and James Adkins (13th round, 2004) is attributable to people higher than Wolever for being either too scared to break slot or too cheap to add big talents.

But what is it about poor records in the minor leagues that should have phans really concerned?  Well, what it could, and in this case does represent, is a serious lack of depth depth across minor league rosters. Once Gavin Floyd (1st round, 2001), Cole Hamels (1st round, 2002) and Ryan Howard (5th round, 2001) all reach the big leagues to stay (and that could be before this season is over), who do we have on the horizon?  Maybe Michael Bourn (4th round, 2003) and some older, fringe prospects?  If the minor league affiliates played .500 or below ball and cranked out young players consistently, I couldn't care less.  But the latter half of that statement just hasn't happened.  Consider this: there have been only six teams that have yet to produce a major league player from their 2002-2004 drafts, and the Phillies are one of them.  Wolever's drafts have yet to produce any kind of results, and the abysmal records of the farm teams indicate that they probably won't.

I mean, honestly...six teams and the combined winning percentage is .400?  That's almost impossible to have happen, and reflects poorly on both the coaches (I'm looking at you, Steve Swisher) and those who hired them (that's right, you too Dallas Green).

Phans who feel that the big-league Phils are a flopping fish rotting from the head down won't be any happier with the even limper one that represents the minor leagues.  For every nice draft pick (Lou Marson in the 4th round, 2004) made, there have been multiple Robby Read's (7th round, 2002) to counteract them.  With no consistent drafting or developmental philosophy apparent, our six minor-league franchises are facing many of the same travails that the big club faces.

At some point, accountability has to become a factor -- either for Wolever himself for his poor drafting, or for those above Wolever who put him in place to do so. Or for both.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT:

#19 Eude Brito · LHP
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre

Despite being in the organization for seven years now, Eude Brito has become a forgotten man. Perhaps the biggest reason why was his three year jump in age during the visa fiasco in 2002 that affected the prospect status of so many foreign-born players.  Left-handed with a plus fastball and plus slider, Brito has moved steadily but quietly through the system, largely because he's never had one big season that opened eyes.  In '04, he didn't even crack the top 15 of Baseball America's prospect list in a pretty barren system.  His ERA climbed as he was promoted, and he was used almost exclusively as a reliever, further diminishing his value.

Such was his charge at the beginning of the year as a member of the Scranton bullpen.  By the beginning of May, it looked like Brito had slammed full throttle into the wall that so many fringe prospects hit upon reaching the upper levels of minor league baseball: in 13 games as a reliever, he had a 2.35 WHIP, a .371 BAA, and a 12.33 ERA; but he was not demoted. Instead, on May 9, Red Barons manager Gene Lamont used Brito as an emergency starter. He pitched very effectively for 3 1/3 innings, allowing just one run and recording seven of his ten outs via strikeout.  He was moved back into the bullpen, however, and immediately reverted to form by getting bombed for five earned runs in a single inning on May 13.

He has not pitched out of the bullpen since, instead taking up residence as an effective member of the starting rotation.  In 10 total starts, Brito has a 3.48 ERA to go along with strong WHIP (1.12) and BAA (.226) numbers.  When he is on, he keeps his low- to mid-90s sinker down and uses a power slider to induce a lot of groundballs.  In his three best starts of the season, he's recorded eight or more groundouts in each game and has a GB/FB ratio of 1.25 overall.

Brito's sudden success as a starter was completely unexpected.  There hasn't been a clear explanation given as to why Lamont made the move, but a recent write-up by Baseball America suggests that he was too reliant on his off-speed pitches and often failed to establish his fastball. Beyond that, though, his relief stats show that he either had nights with no command at all (10 BB in 15 1/3 IP), or he had nights when the only strikes he could throw were ones right down the middle (as evidenced by his 26 hits allowed in relief).  That has not been the case since moving into the rotation, where he has walked just 18 in 51 1/3 IP.  So, improved command becomes the next best explanation for his sudden jump in performance level.

Don't pencil him in to your future Phillies rotation, however.  Both Lamont and Red Barons pitching coach Rod Nichols have said that if Brito, now 26, is going to make it to the big leagues, he'll almost certainly do so as a reliever.  Whether or not that role will be a more defined one, say as a LOOGY (left-handed one out guy), is unclear at the moment, and that decision will likely be made on the basis of his splits against left and right-handed hitters (numbers which are annoyingly unavailable for players at the minor league level).  However, his low batting average against suggests that he has had success against hitters on both side of the plate, and could possibly handle a wider role in the late innings of a ballgame as a potentially dominating setup man.

A likely September call-up at worst, Brito could probably be brought in right now and outperform Rheal Cormier in relief.  It's far more likely, however, that he'll be a throw-in in some unnecessary deadline trade (see also: Ramirez, Elizardo and Simon, Alfredo).  Sorry to close on a downer note, but y'all know it's true!