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A Slow-Motion Trainwreck? The Phillies and the Draft

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Baseball rosters are built over periods of years. Unlike the NFL where money that is not guaranteed can be shed and rosters can be pruned and changed with much more impunity, MLB requires lead times for teams to get good (or to get bad). Here is a walk down memory lane for drafts by the Phillies.

God, I need a smoke...
God, I need a smoke...
Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

[I was working on this piece last night when this one came through as a Fan Post. I suggest reading the two in pari materia. I think it's fair to say that melloticus is of the same tribe as I am on the Phillies and the draft. RtP.]

It is pretty clear that the Phillies are going through a transition period right now where they are wringing the last bit of talent out of the "aging core" while marking time till some ill-advised contracts roll off the books. While we all have been seeing some hopeful looking green shoots on the farm, we are still waiting to see if the Phillies truly are finding their next core to build around. In looking at the Phillies' draft picks over the last ten years or so, it helps to understand why the Phillies are having some problems with this transition.

It takes a long time for a bad organization to get good. It can take less time, but still it takes a while, for a good organization to become bad. Baseball is like that, with organizational momentum that is picked up and shed over the course of years. It's like a diesel freight train more than a drag racer.

One of the most-important variables that add or remove momentum from an organization is the draft. There are other ways to acquire players (dumpster dives, the Rule 5 draft, international signings, free agency, trades, etc.) but the stock in trade of most teams, however, is the First-Year Player Draft, a.k.a. the Rule 4 draft. It encompasses generally high school players (who can sign or go to college instead) and college players. This is the "sign a free agent and give up a pick" draft, though those rules changed with the last collective bargaining agreement and "qualifying offers" and the like.

Teams turn draft picks into players by drafting them and signing them and developing them. They are also turned into players by drafting them, signing them, and trading them. Reviewing some of the names and you see examples of the former (Jon Singleton, 2009) and other names (Anthony Gose 2008 and Travis D'Arnaud 2007) let you see examples of the latter. Some are both (Vance Worley, drafted and signed in 2008, after he didn't sign in 2005 - developed, used, then traded).

In the NFL, a draft can generally be assessed less than twelve months after it occurs. Maybe it takes two years, but unless your first pick was a quarterback who sits on the bench for a couple of years, usually a draft can be evaluated in less than 24 months. Not so in baseball.

It can take five or six years before it is obvious how a draft worked out. Assuming a college player is between 20 and 22 years old at the time drafted, that is more than enough time to make it to the show, and in fact it is a little too long, actually. The time frame of five to six years also allows high school players to maybe make it, and if not, to at least show some sort of promise. Domonic Brown was drafted in 2006, and how he works out this year may tell us if the Phillies had a good or bad draft in 2006, or seven years ago. These things have a lot of lead time, hence the freight train analogy at the top.

In discussions about the state of the Phillies recently, there was some discussion about the drafts in 2007 and 2008, particularly the whiffs at the top of the draft (Joe Savery and Anthony Hewitt). In addition, there was no first round pick in 2009 thanks to the Raul Ibanez signing. Here's a list of the first round picks of the Phillies back to 1965. Even better, here is a list of all the draft picks by the Phillies for the years from 2000 - 2012. My contention in this article is that the Phillies whiffs in those years, while important, were just a part of a larger failure over a longer period.

In this walk down draft memory lane, take a look in particular at 2008, 2009, and 2010 - those are the years that are in the wheelhouse of "help now." I won't spoil it, but 2009 was just appalling. Not having a first round pick was just the start. Jonathan Singleton might have saved the draft, but for the waste that was the Hunter Pence trade, though that is not a "draft failure." Darrin Ruf? We're just wishcasting to salvage something from that draft now.

A better draft was had in 2008, even with Zach Collier and Anthony Hewitt disappointing at the top. The next five picks were Gose, Knapp, Worley, Pettibone, and May, all of whom turned out to have value for the organization as either ongoing prospects, trade pieces, or producers in MLB, or, as with Vance Worley, both.

If 2009 is the quintessential "bad" draft and 2008 is a pretty good one (but without an obvious "star"), 2010 appears to be more like 2009 than 2008. My inability to recognize virtually anyone other than Biddle and Gauntlett Eldemire (and the latter solely for his name) troubles me.

At this point, here's my quickie summary on recent draft history:

  • 2008: Good-ish (lots of helpful players, none elite)
  • 2009: Bad
  • 2010: Bad
  • 2011: Too early to tell
  • 2012: Too early to tell
Another thought here is that I did not see a single major league player taken later than 18 (Tyler Cloyd, 2008) other than Jake Diekman in 2007 (30th round). Perusing the list, it appears that there is not really any value other than organization filler for the Phillies beyond roughly round 15 or so, though Jarred Cosart was signed after being drafted in 2008 in the 38th round, and he was converted into part of Hunter Pence. Ick.

Once in a while, there is a lightning strike, but, tightening that even further, it seems as if value doesn't turn up in the first ten picks, it appears pretty unlikely that there is anything there. Making this even more unlikely now than in the past is the slotting system. In the past, sometimes a team would take a late-round flyer on a high school kid who was headed to college and try to sign him by waving lots of cash at him. That strategy no longer flies, since players drafted after the 10th round can only be given $100,000.00 (sort of, kind of), or the money used will be taken from the pool of money allotted to each team for picks 1 - 10, which varies, depending on the amount MLB assigns. (I think I have all that right; please jump in if I blew it.)

The key to the point about the real value being in the first ten picks is that the team really only has that many to try to sign, groom, and promote to fill out their MLB roster, since most of the players taken later are destined to be, at most, organizational filler, especially under the slotting system. Of the players drafted in the first ten rounds, most will flame out, fall by the wayside due to injuries or other problems, or be traded. A player who survives and makes it to the majors and stays there with the drafting team is a rare exception. Beyond that, a player who turns out to me more than just a fringe major leaguer is a real exception. Going backwards from 2008 to 2003, the first really elite Phillies draftee I saw was Michael Bourn, in the 2003 draft. It has been a long time since the Phillies drafted a real star. Cole Hamels, while a player I think of as "young" (old Phillies!) was a product of the 2002 draft.

In 1995, the Phillies finished a strike-shortened season at 69 - 75 under the gentle, tobacco-stained hand of Jim Fregosi. The team's best players were Jim Eisenreich and Ricky Bottalico. I'm not kidding. In the draft the following year (1996), the Phillies picked the infamous Adam Eaton first. The second pick was a kid from Encinal High in Alameda, California: Jimmy Rollins.

It was not obvious in 1996 that the Phillies had just turned the corner. There were lots of corners yet to turn, too. But something really great happened that June day, though it took lots of additional momentum acquired in the following 7 drafts to turn around the franchise. It's looking more and more like maybe that was the old regime that pulled that off, or it was luck. The Gillick/Amaro years haven't been great, and there have been losses in the scouting department since then, too.

In any case, that kind of 1996 - 2003 momentum has been absent from Phillies drafts since roughly 2003. It isn't wrong to suggest that the Phillies' first-round busts in 2007 and 2008 are hurting the team now -- it's just not going far enough. While the 1996 - 2003 period was exceptionally productive, the period since then has been pretty bad. Part of the reason is free agency acquisitions costing draft picks (Jon Lieber! Raul Ibanez! Cliff Lee! Papelbon!). Part of it is that the Phillies have to pick later now that they have been winning for the better part of a decade, which makes things harder. Still, they do not seem to be turning picks into keepers, with some entire drafts nearly completely devoid of talent.

If the Phillies are to find the "next core" the draft is obviously a major component of that strategy. It's not complicated. The team has to draft better than it has done over the last ten years. Walk through the draft links or the draft links and it just hits you in the face. I have some reason to hope that the corner may have been turned a bit in the last couple of years, but only time will tell.

The Phillies, to be fair, did get Brad Lidge's perfect 2008, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay out of the draft (via trades of talent that they drafted), so it's not like they have been unproductive. Jon Singleton, though he was wasted in a trade, was still a good draft pick. The trade-offs and the long-term costs of doing business of acquiring players in trades don't make the draft any less important, though. They still need to draft, sign, and develop players well.

How are the Phillies doing in comparison to other teams? Are they drafting, signing, and developing more or fewer players than average? Are the players of lesser quality? I can't answer that now, because I haven't looked at the other teams. I have a sneaky hunch, though, that the Orioles, the Pirates, and other perennial bottom-dwellers have struggled in this area, and that is cause for concern, but not panic.

Fortunately, the Phillies have a lot set to go "right" very soon (contracts coming off the books, the prospect of new TV money, some green shoots on the farm), and they have not completely stalled out. It is a long way from Philadelphia to Kansas City, but when the draft comes up again this summer, keep your eye on it. It might be Anthony Hewitt again. But it might be Jimmy Rollins.