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The Ultimate Good Luck: Utley, Howard, Hamels

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As the Phillies gear up for the 2010 season, the organization continues to attempt a balancing act between winning it all this year and ensuring chances to compete for championships far into the future. The tension between these objectives fed the series of decisions that saw the Phils swap aces in December, bringing in Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays while sending Cliff Lee to the Mariners. Ken Rosenthal assesses the sequence again in a new piece, concluding that the Phils are "built for the long run"--an assessment we can assume pleased GM Ruben Amaro Jr., who's quoted extensively in the piece.

I'm not really interested in re-litigating the Halladay/Lee moves. I understand the constraints on the team's budget, which would have killed them after this season, facing a stripped rotation without Lee or Joe Blanton; in revenue terms, they just don't have much room to grow right now. (Hopefully someone's working on this, whether that means a dedicated Phillies TV network, having J.A. Happ work kids' birthday parties, or something in between.) But I'm not sure it's as clear as it should be just how crazily fortunate the team is to be in the competitive position in which it finds itself.

The core of this Phillies team came through the draft, which between 1996 and 2002 brought Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, Ryan Madson, Brett Myers, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels-all key contributors to the 2008 world champions-into the fold. The last three players remain franchise cornerstones, among the three or four highest-value players from the entirety 2000, 2001 and 2002 drafts respectively. A look at the players selected at the same point in the draft for the five years before and after each was taken shows that the Phils succeeded with those picks not just beyond their own likely expectations, but what even the wildest optimist could have hoped for.

Using Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to evaulate the players drafted in the same slots in the five years before and after the three Phillies, we get a sense of just how fortunate the team was.

Chase Utley

Utley was selected in the first round of the 2000 draft, with the 15th overall pick. Here are the players taken with that pick in the five years before and after his selection:

1995: Red Sox, Andy Yount (never made majors)
1996: Padres, Matt Halloran (never made majors)
1997: White SoxJason Dellaero 
1998: Pirates, Clint Johnston (never made majors)
1999: White Sox, Jason Stumm (never made majors)

Maybe that was a bad run; of anyone taken in the middle of the first round, you'd expect more than one in five at least to reach the big leagues, and to have heard of any of them. Admittedly, the guys taken at 15 in the five years following Utley did somewhat better.

2001: Blue Jays, Gabe Gross, 6.3 WAR
2002: MetsScott Kazmir,  17.9
2003: White Sox, Brian Anderson, -0.4
2004: DiamondbacksStephen Drew, 5.6
2005: White Sox, Lance Broadway, 0.6

They all made it, in fact, and Kazmir and Drew are at least borderline stars whose best work still might be in front of them. But in terms of WAR, Utley's 39.7 has more than twice as many as Kazmir's 17.9 to this point, and in fact he's been worth over ten wins more than all ten of his before-and-after draft counterparts combined. 


Ryan Howard

Where Utley at least had been a college star whom the Dodgers had tried to take with a high-round pick three years earlier, Howard was considered something of a disappointment in college, and he slid to the fourth round of the 2001 draft where the Phils took him with the 140th overall pick. Given the performance of the guys selected at that spot in the five years previous, expectations should have been modest:

1996: Padres, Brian Loyd (never made majors)
1997: Padres, Tony Lawrence (never made majors)
1998: Reds, Jayson Larman (never made majors)
1999: CubsSteve Smyth, -0.6
2000: AngelsBobby Jenks, 7.2 WAR

Jenks turned out to be a valuable big leaguer... just not for the Angels, who waived him after the 2004 season. If you've heard of any of the other four, that's one up on me. But the five taken at #140 after Howard actually make the "before" group look good:

2002: Tigers, Bo Flowers (never made majors)
2003: Blue Jays, Justin James (never made majors)
2004: RockiesMatt Macri 
2005: Cardinals, Bryan Anderson (never made majors)
2006: Pirates, Patrick Bresnahan (never made majors)

The gap between Howard's Wins Above Replacement (21.9) and that of his ten draft comps is staggering--more than three times their total, which is basically that of Bobby Jenks. To put it another way, the Phillies drafted the best second baseman and the best first baseman in their almost 130 year history in back to back years, at points in the draft where there's much more failure than success. (And recall that four years before they got Utley, they landed Rollins, the best shortstop they've ever had, in the mid-second round.) 

Cole Hamels

Compared to Utley and Howard, Hamels almost doesn't look that special. The 2002 draft was famously loaded, with B.J. Upton, Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Jeff Francis, the aforementioned Scott Kazmir, Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton and Matt Cain selected among many other big leaguers of somewhat less distinction. But the 17th overall pick, where the Phils took Hamels, had been anything but a guaranteed goldmine over the previous five years:

1997: Red Sox, John Curtise (never made majors)
1998: AstrosBrad Lidge, 11.0
1999: Red Sox, Rick Asadoorian (never made majors)
2000: Dodgers, Ben Diggins, -0.2
2001: White Sox, Kris Honel (never made majors)

Lidge we know was decent; the other four, again, were something less than memorable. How about the "after" group?

2003: Red Sox, David Murphy, 3.6
2004: Dodgers, Scott Elbert, -0.3
2005: Yankees, C.J. Henry (never made majors)
2006: Padres, Matt Antonelli, -0.4
2007: Rangers, Blake Beavan (never made majors)

Thought we were done with C.J. Henry, didn't you? The Yankees took him with the pick they got from the Phils for the Jon Lieber signing, then of course traded him to the Phillies in the nightmarish Bobby Abreu deal. He's now out of baseball. Murphy is a solid major leaguer and Elbert might turn out to be useful; otherwise we again see slim pickings. Murphy's 3.6 career WAR plus Lidge's 11.0 still doesn't quite equal Hamels' 14.7, even before you factor in the negative WARs of Antonelli, Elbert and Diggins.

So that's three draft picks, from three straight drafts, in which the Phillies got almost unimaginably more than they had any right to expect--and, since Utley was a below-market player through 2009 and Howard and Hamels remain short of free agency, they've gotten all that production at a steep discount.

This is good fortune that you can neither plan for nor "earn." To be sure, the Phils did well in developing all three players, despite some bumps and near-disasters along the way (the short-lived Utley-to-third experiment, rumored trades of Utley to Oakland for Mark Mulder and Howard to Pittsburgh for Zach Duke or Kip Wells, Hamels' bar fight, etc). But if anybody knew what those guys would become, obviously they never would have lasted long enough for the Phils to select them. And if the Phils themselves were bulletproof judges of amateur talent, there wouldn't be so many Greg Golsons or Joe Saverys in their recent draft history.

So what does it mean? Obviously, Amaro and his team will continue to do the best they can in evaluating amateur talent; more recent picks like Kyle Drabek, Adrian Cardenas and Michael Taylor have enabled trade acquisitions, and the likes of Trevor May, Jiwan James and Jon Singleton could be the next group of high-risk, high-reward draft pickups. But you can't discount luck, and it's nearly certain that the Phils will never again in our lifetimes have as much of it in as short a period of time as they did through the 2000-2002 amateur drafts. The organization would do well to keep that in mind, lest they become too convinced of their own wisdom and judgment.

(post title with apologies to Richard Ford)