March 30, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
Philadelphia Phillies: Changing Habits
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the drafting philosophies of the Phillies and Blue Jays.
If you’re a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies, I have some bad news, though it likely won’t be new news. Thanks to attrition, some awful drafts along with essentially no quality international signings, and some questionable—to put it nicely—roster decisions, the Phillies have one of the worst rosters in all of baseball, and it’s very likely that they’re going to finish last in the National League East in 2015.
If you’re a fan of the Phillies, I have some good news, too, news that you might not have noticed because you may have been wondering how things went so wrong so quickly. There is help on the way, and it’s on the way because of a shift in organizational philosophy —a realization that there is value in the safe prospect.
From 2008 to 2012, you could argue that there was no team that took more risks in the draft than the Phillies, and you could also come to the conclusion that no team has less from their drafts than Philadelphia does. During those years, their first-round selections were Anthony Hewitt, Jesse Biddle, Kelly Dugan, Larry Greene, and Shane Watson.
All five of these players were considered talented prospects that belonged in the early part of the draft, but all five were considered volatile prospects with extremely low floors. They ended up with three non-prospects—Greene retired this spring—a potential fourth outfielder, and a backend starter who has serious command issues. Even if you don’t believe the draft is an important part of building the system, it’s tough to see how anyone could call that period a success.
“Laughing stock would be too strong a term,” a long-time National League scout said. “But there were times over that decade where I would wonder what exactly their goals with some picks were. It seemed like their goal was to just get the best athlete or the strongest guy and hope they could develop him into something, like they all knew something we didn’t. It turns out they didn’t.”
These last two years however, the Phillies have done a much better job of taking players that were not without ceiling, but have some of the higher floors in the class. 2013 first-rounder J.P. Crawford may not have a plus tool, but outside of power he may be above-average across the board—and it’s not as if he’s completely bereft of pop—and that skillset from a premium position now makes him one of the top prospects in baseball. Last year, they selected Aaron Nola, a pitcher who many believe is ready to pitch at the backend of a major-league rotation right now, though he likely won’t be showing his plus command and two plus pitches until the summer. They’ve also added players like Andrew Knapp, Matt Imhof, and Aaron Brown—prospects that aren’t likely to become stars, but have a great chance of becoming regulars and in a relatively short timeframe, too.
“A complete 180 [in terms of draft process],” the same scout said. “There was a little bit of risk in Crawford just because he was a prep, but he really wasn’t the type of guy they went after, and neither was Nola. We sort of assumed they’d go after guys like [Rangers 2013 first-rounder Travis] Demeritte or [Giants 2014 first-rounder Tyler] Beede, but they went the opposite direction. There’s a long way to go, but it appears they made the right decision.”
It hasn’t just been in the draft where the Phillies have added safe (but promising) prospects. The trade that saw long-time fan favorite Jimmy Rollins head to the Dodgers netted Philadelphia two potential mid-rotation arms in right-hander Zach Eflin and left-hander Tom Windle. They also did well to get potential backend rotation member Ben Lively when they jettisoned Marlon Byrd to Cincinnati, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was pitching in the Phillies rotation at some point this summer. Trade rumors involving ace left-hander Cole Hamels have seen Philadelphia asking for prospects like Blake Swihart and Joc Pederson—prospects that are obviously very talented, but also have some of the highest floors of prospects that are ranked in the top 30.
Sometimes when people hear about the safety of the prospect, we associate it as a negative connotation. The truth of the matter is that while upside is wonderful and you generally need upper-echelon players to win divisions/leagues/championships, there’s also something to be said about players who have a skill set that appears to give a player a higher chance of becoming a contributor at the big-league level compared to those with instability. The Phillies have done a nice job of accruing those players over the past few years, and assuming they continue the same trend, they have a great chance of being competitive in the National League East again in the next few seasons.