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Where are all the Phillies’ prospects?

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The Phillies have now gone eight straight years without a winning season, and fans have suffered through a lot of bad baseball over that time:

The team stumbled in 2012 and started to “reload” at the trade deadline that year: they stopped signing new long term free agent contracts (and losing draft picks in the process), and tried to remain competitive with only short-term deals. However, Ryan Howard never returned to pre-injury form, Dom Brown never developed the way the Phillies (and the league) expected, and Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee declined rapidly. All of which finally led the team to abandon any thoughts of staying in contention, and they started a rebuild in earnest after the 2014 season.

They’ve now gotten back to some semblance of competitiveness, signing Bryce Harper and seemingly poised to rise above the .500 level that they finally reached last year. Fans are worried though about whether this team can be a consistent winner. The farm system was ranked highly for a couple of years, but is now back to the bottom 10. There are two prospects who appear ready to step in and contribute in 2020, but beyond that, where are all the prospects we would expect to see at the end of a rebuild?

We recently covered the Phillies’ draft record of the last 30 years, and how it has compared to the rest of MLB: Phillies drafts: boom, bust, and Bohm

We also reviewed the Phillies’ history in international signings, and compared their track record there over the past 30 years to the rest of the league: Phillies international signings: their share of major league talent, but no stars

Now let’s take a step back from that detail and summarize where the Phillies are in terms of young talent, and how they got here.

There are generally three sources for prospects, and we’ll review each one in turn:

  • The draft
  • International free agents
  • Trades

THE DRAFT

The Phillies experienced a great winning run in 2007-11, primarily because in the preceding decade they had one of the most successful periods of drafting and development by any team in recent history. From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s they drafted core players Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, and Ryan Howard, as well as Pat Burrell, Brett Myers, Michael Bourn, and J.A. Happ.

However that was followed by one of the worst drafting periods by any recent team, from the mid-2000s to the early 2010s. (It’s difficult to separate the impact of drafting the right players vs. the development process, so we’ll call it drafting and development throughout, or D&D).

Their picks from 2005 through 2013 have produced a combined total of only 44 WAR to date, by far the least of any MLB team for those nine drafts. The average is 165 WAR, and the second lowest total is 102[1].

That sounds bad, but sometimes a picture helps to really put things in perspective — the Phillies were truly in a league of their own:

When they weren’t forfeiting first round picks to sign free agents, they were missing badly on those picks:

- 2005: — (lost for signing Jon Lieber)
- 2006: Kyle Drabek (RHP), 18th overall
- 2007: Joe Savery (LHP), 19th
- 2008: Anthony Hewitt (OF), 24th
- 2009: — (lost for signing Raul Ibanez)
- 2010: Jesse Biddle (LHP), 27th
- 2011: Larry Greene (OF), 39th
- 2012: Shane Watson (RHP), 40th

(Some might include 2013’s J.P. Crawford here, but with him about to start his first full season as a starter he could still very well have a good career.)

Also, while the first round typically provides only about 40% of the value from a draft, they weren’t getting much from the other rounds, either.

Below is a (very) simplified illustration showing the impact of multiple bad drafts. For example:
- the average team’s picks from the 2006 draft have produced 25 total combined WAR to date
- the Phillies’ picks from that draft: only 1 WAR so far, or 24 WAR short of the average
- let’s say that 75% of that shortfall, or 18 WAR, would have been produced in the players’ controllable years
- spreading that 18 WAR over the 6 years under team control is 3.0 WAR per year
- i.e. if the Phillies’ draft in 2006 had even been just average, it would have meant 3.0 WAR more value each year in 2011-2016, to either use on the field or make available for trades.

These players would have been under team control as late as 2023 (estimating 4 years to get to the majors, on average, plus 6 years until free agency).

If all the Phillies’ drafts from 2005 through 2013 had been average, theoretically it would have meant an additional 10-14 WAR of value for each of the past several years. We can’t just add all of that to their win totals for each year to estimate what their win totals might have been, since some prospects may have been blocked by better players. But any prospect who didn’t fit on the roster could have been traded to fill a need, get another prospect, etc.

We can debate the various parameters in this illustration (e.g. time in minors, or the spread of WAR by year), but there’s no denying that the dearth of players from the 2005-2013 drafts was a major blow to the team’s fortunes, and in fact that impact is still being felt.

In the draft piece, we touched on the on-going impact of that drought in D&D:

[The] 2005-13 drafts are the primary reason the Phillies’ rebuild a) had to happen at all, b) took as long as it did, and c) must now be heavily supplemented through the free agent market in order to field a competitive team.

The poor D&D meant that there were no prospects to replace the previous core, but also no prospects to trade for major leaguers to avoid a rebuild. And even if they still had to undergo a rebuild, it meant that they didn’t have young veterans to trade for prospects. For example, if say first rounder Anthony Hewitt, to pick one bust, was a viable major leaguer in 2015 he could have brought back prospects for a rebuild.

Improving?

More recently, there may be signs of improvement. Below is the draft record of scouting director Marti Wolever, with that long drought sandwiched between two nice bookends, including a very good 2014:

And here is the much shorter tenure of Johnny Almaraz:

Since the 2012 trade deadline, when they began their “reload”, the Phillies have had seven drafts (2013-2019), which have produced these major leaguers so far:

Aaron Nola, 2014 (17 WAR to date)
Rhys Hoskins, 2014 (7)
Scott Kingery, 2015 (3)
J.P. Crawford, 2013 (2)
Adam Haseley, 2017 (1)

That’s a total of 30 WAR, which is the 4th highest total in MLB from those drafts.

If Hoskins hadn’t cratered last August-September, more fans might be encouraged by this, but that late season slump makes some wonder — which Hoskins are we get going forward:

- the one from his first two years in the league? (Aug 2017-Jul 2019):
1339 PAs, .252/.374/.523 (135 wRC+)

- or the one from the last two months of 2019?
238 PAs, .166/.308/.326 (68 wRC+)

Those two terrible months diminish, but don’t erase, what he’s done overall so far, and more importantly, unless there is a specific change that we can point to that precipitated that horrendous slump, we should be putting a lot less faith for predicting the future in that two-month slump, than in the two-year sample of very good hitting that preceded it.

Hoskins’ most recent performance makes that 30 WAR feel really top heavy, with only Nola as an impact player. And Nola himself is no sure thing (as if there ever are such things). He followed his excellent 2018 with a pretty good 2019 which also included a second half dip of its own, and many fans aren’t convinced he’s more than a #3 starter, or at best a #2.

However the stats say otherwise: over the last three years he has thrown the 7th most innings, compiled the 8th highest WAR, and has the 16th lowest ERA among 104 qualifying starters.

In addition to what they’ve done on the field, the other measure we have of young talent is the ranking of the farm system and individual prospects.

Two years ago, the Phillies’ farm system was ranked near the top, for example 6th per Baseball America, and 5th by ESPN. Anywhere from four to seven of their prospects appeared on national top 100 lists:

Today the system ranks in the 20s, generally, with only Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard appearing on most top 100 lists.

Recent graduations (Crawford, Kingery, Haseley, Alfaro) and the Sixto Sanchez trade to Miami have contributed to the downgrading of the farm system, but there’s more to it than that. After Bohm and Howard, there are no other imminent starters, and prospects like Adonis Medina, Jojo Romero, Luis Garcia, and Mickey Moniak have had their struggles. Prospects with the highest upside are years away and still high-risk.

On the one hand, it stinks that analysts have a dimmer view of these prospects. Though it’s also a reminder that those assessments are very often wrong.

Moniak is the recent pick that has been the most disappointing to many fans. He has advanced at an acceptable rate and mostly held his own lately, but hasn’t produced so far like fans expected from a #1 overall pick.

In summary, while there have been misses in recent years, as every team has, their drafting has certainly improved. Prospect and farm system rankings suggest that after Bohm and Howard there many not be more arriving in the near future, but those two might provide enough cheap home grown production to allow the front office to fill remaining needs through free agency.

INTERNATIONAL FREE AGENTS

In 2018, as the Phillies were making their first tentative moves back to contention in the NL East, two young phenoms who had been signed as international free agents (IFAs) burst onto the scene: first, 20-year-old Ronald Acuna Jr. in late April, and then 19-year-old Juan Soto a month later, both of whom played like veteran all-stars.

Worse yet from a Phillies perspective, one of them had been signed by Johnny Almaraz (along with Ozzie Albies), before the Phillies made him their Director of Amateur Scouting in 2015.

And the other one would effectively become the (arguably better) replacement for the guy the Phils had to commit $330 million to get.

Phillies fans wondered why we can’t have guys like that, though two players arriving so young and so good is fairly rare. Here are all the times in MLB history when two players came up in the same year, both 20 or younger, and were as successful as Soto and Acuna:

2018: Ronald Acuna Jr. (3.7 WAR), Juan Soto (3.7)
2012: Mike Trout (10.1), Bryce Harper (4.4)
1996: Alex Rodriguez (9.2), Edgar Renteria (3.5)
1928: Jimmie Foxx (4.7), Mel Ott (4.1)

Unlike the three previous times, Acuna and Soto came up in the same league. And in the same division — the NL East, where we can expect them to terrorize the Phillies for many years to come. No wonder fans are worried.

It doesn’t help either that after providing a steady stream of good major leaguers for over a decade, the Phillies’ own international pipeline has slowed lately in terms of major league production.

Since Sal Agostinelli was named director of international scouting in 1997, the Phillies are 13th in the WAR generated by their international signings, thanks to a series of solid performers:

- Carlos Ruiz (signed 1998)
- Rob Tejeda (1998)
- Carlos Carrasco (2003)
- Antonio Bastardo (2005)
- Cesar Hernandez (2006)
- Freddy Galvis (2006)
- Jonathan Villar (2008)
- Domingo Santana (2008)
- Maikel Franco (2009)
- Hector Neris (2009)

That middle-of-the-pack 13th place ranking is as respectable as it is despite their apparent reluctance to sign established players from Cuba, Japan, or South Korea, aside from a couple of failed attempts (most recently with Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez).

Their amateur scouting must therefore have been pretty good, but even that is in a slump of late, as they haven’t gotten much production from their signings since 2010.

That may change if Seranthony Dominguez returns to health and effectiveness, and there are others included on the Phillies Top 10 prospect list (from BP) who may contribute, though most are still years away:

3) Francisco Morales, RHP
5) Adonis Medina, RHP
6) Luis Garcia, SS
8) Johan Rojas, OF
10) Rafael Marchan, C

One other recent signing who seems ready to make a mark in the majors is Sixto Sanchez. He’s now with Miami, but he has already “produced” by landing J.T. Realmuto, with an assist from Jorge Alfaro.

Here’s their track record on IFAs over the last 30 years. For example their 2006 signings have produced 20 WAR so far (all of it from position players), and that’s 3rd most in MLB for that year’s class:

COMBINED DRAFTS AND INTERNATIONAL

Below is WAR produced by the key draft picks and IFAs since 2000. Those with boxes too small to fit their names are listed below.

The tables below show total WAR produced by the NL East teams’ selections. This is total combined WAR to date by all draft picks and IFAs, by the year they were signed:

And this is the same view, but cumulative looking back. So for example for all years since 2005, the team whose player selections have produced the most WAR (the Red Sox) has 311, the average is 215, and the Phillies are at 116.

The Phillies are last in MLB since 2003 (i.e. 2003 through 2019), as well as since 2004, ‘05, etc. However they are doing better more recently.

Thanks mostly to Nola and Hoskins, for the years since 2014 they are 3rd in MLB in the WAR generated by their draft picks and IFAs, though it’s still early days for those years.

And below is a graphical view.

The one on the left measures total WAR produced to date by that year’s signings (green is the team with the most WAR produced, yellow is the least, and black is the average for the 30 teams). The red Phillies line matches the totals in the column graph and tables above.

The graph on the right does the same thing, but is cumulative looking back.

TRADES

It’s often said that the Phillies held on to the previous core for too long, and there is certainly merit to that. Perhaps they realized how fortunate they were to have drafted so well (and to sign Ruiz), and decided that it was more likely to get one last run out of that group, than to try to repeat that great draft performance.

Or maybe they wanted to remain competitive and not risk a down period while they were negotiating the Comcast contract (and realized their farm was not going to provide reinforcements). Whatever the reason or reasons, they ended up holding on to the old core longer than they should have, and so when they finally did start moving them after the 2014 season the returns in terms of prospects were relatively meager.

The dearth of prospects from the 2005-2013 drafts also meant that when they traded veterans, instead of holding out for a top prospect, they wanted to replenish the farm and opted for quantity over quality, hoping that the law of averages would turn one of them into an impact player (or that more of them would turn into contributing major leaguers).

Jimmy Rollins (Dec 2014): Zach Eflin and Tom Windle
Jonathan Papelbon (Jul 2015): Nick Pivetta
Cole Hamels (Jul 2015): Jorge Alfaro, Nick Williams, Jerad Eickhoff, Jake Thompson, Alec Asher, Matt Harrison
Chase Utley (Aug 2015): John Richy and Darnell Sweeney
Ken Giles (Dec 2015): Vince Velasquez, Tom Eshelman, Mark Appel, Brett Oberholtzer, Harold Arauz
Carlos Ruiz (Aug 2016): A.J. Ellis, Tommy Bergjans, Joey Curletta

An impact player or two could still possibly emerge from Eflin/Pivetta/Velasquez, but the chances are diminishing as each year goes by.

Signing veterans to short term deals during the rebuild in order to 1) field a more watchable team, and 2) flip them for prospects, has had very limited success:

Roberto Hernandez (Aug 2014): Victor Arano and Jesmuel Valentin
Marlon Byrd (Dec 2014): Ben Lively
Pat Neshek (Jul 2017): J.D. Hammer, Jose Gomez, Alejandro Requena
Jeremy Hellickson (Jul 2017): Garrett Cleavinger, Hyun Soo Kim
Howie Kendrick (Jul 2017): McKenzie Mills

SUMMARY

In short, the Phillies have fewer top prospects than other teams coming out of a rebuild for a few reasons:

  • Horrendous drafting and development from the 2005-13 drafts yielded very little, which necessitated the rebuild, and dug a hole which made it more difficult to get back to contention.
  • The pipeline of international free agents has slowed in recent years, with almost no production yet from signings of the last decade.
  • Trades of veterans for prospects targeted quantity over quality (partly in reaction to the poor D&D), and have not yielded an impact player, at least so far.

What now?

For now, we hope that Bohm, Howard, and other prospects on the way perform, and that the Phillies keep improving their player selection and development processes.

By July they could very likely have four home grown starters (Hoskins, Kingery, Haseley, Bohm), as well as three of their five starting pitchers (Nola, Eflin, Howard).

Until they get consistent output from the farm again, they will need to continue to use their financial strength to fill a competitive roster by heavily supplementing through free agency.

That can work for a few years, but really they are only buying time. Unless they are willing to regularly exceed the luxury tax threshold, and put up with the penalties that entails, they will be stuck in a situation similar to this year, with holes to fill but limited money to fill them with.

Ultimately they will need the farm to be a consistent producer of talent again.