TBOH Analysis: Are the Phillies Employing the Wrong Strategy For Their Farm System?


Are the Phillies missing out on the next Chase Utley? Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

With each prospect list released by writers across the baseball blogosphere, the reality of the Phillies’ farm system is laid bare.

When it comes to Major League caliber talent, there isn’t a whole lot on the shelves at the moment.

Most experts have the Phillies among the bottom third of organizations in terms of overall minor league talent, and while there is some debate as to who the top prospect is in the organization, as well as just where they rank among baseball’s top 100, everyone recognizes the Phils do not have a minor league prospect among the 50 best in the sport.

So what exactly is the problem? Is the team’s organizational philosophy a train wreck? Have they simply been unlucky? Is the way the team develops their own players hurting them at the Major League level? Do they focus too much on high school players and not enough on more polished college players? Have they simply been drafting too low to get impact position players? Or have they traded away too many minor league players for Major League talent in recent years?

Man, that’s a lot of questions.

One of the issues that’s raised most often is what seems to be an organizational philosophy that devalues well-rounded college players, and instead takes fliers on riskier, younger high school players with lots of “tools” but less overall baseball pedigree.

“Devalue may not be the right terminology,” says Jay Floyd (@PhoulBallz), who runs the website Phoulballz.com, a site devoted to covering the Phils’ minor league system, “but they certainly favor taking high school kids in the early rounds of the draft.”

But is it really true that the Phils don’t draft college players? A closer look at the numbers says, yes. And, no.

Since 2000, the Phillies have drafted 75 college players and 57 high school players within the first 10 rounds of the draft. However, of their last 14 top picks (not all of which were in the first round), the Phils have selected nine high schoolers and five college players. And, in the last four drafts, their first pick has been a high school player.

‘Talent is talent,” says Jason Parks (@professorparks), a national prospect/player development writer for Baseball Prospectus, “regardless if it needs five years to mature or two years to mature.

“Sure, college players don’t require as much low-level instruction, and the risk factor is usually much lower. I see some advantage in that market. But ceilings are ceilings, regardless of where the player comes from.”

It’s important to note that, since 2001, the Phillies have not had a top 10 pick in the draft. The highest the Phillies have selected since then was in 2002, when they drafted Cole Hamels with the #17 overall pick. Since 2007, the Phillies have selected 19th (Joe Savery), 24th (Anthony Hewitt), 75th (Kelly Dugan, 2nd round), 27th (Jesse Biddle), 39th (Larry Greene) and 40th (Shane Watson).

Success and free agent signings have robbed the franchise of some of those early picks that can often turn out to be gold, which is one of the reasons the Phillies have targeted high school players early in recent years.

“Most high-end college talent isn’t available after the first few rounds of the draft,” says Parks, “unless that talent has substantial question marks or has a sticker price that causes the stock to slip.”

Still, there is an argument to be made that drafting college players, even if it is later in the first round, or in rounds two or three, is the safer play.

“Of the Phils’ 21 total picks in the first two rounds over the previous nine or ten drafts, 15 were high school picks,” says Floyd. “One of those turned out to be great. His name was Cole Hamels. But, generally, the Anthony Hewitts of the world and other high schoolers taken early by the Phillies have proven to not be successful for the organization. Others, like Travis d’Arnaud and Anthony Gose, have been used as trading chips. On the other side, Joe Savery, who was a first round pick out of college, hasn’t proved to be worthy of that selection either.

“More recently, though, you’re seeing college picks like Adam Morgan and Cody Asche (both taken in 2011), who were taken after the first two rounds, proving to be fast rising players in the system. If 2012 draft choices like Hoby Milner and Chris Serritella can show a swift progression, perhaps the Phils’ draft focus on older players could shift going forward.”

And, one guy Floyd didn’t mention was Darin Ruf, who was drafted out of college.

But just how prevalent are quality college prospects late in the first round, or in rounds two and three?

Of the top 50 Major League players in 2012 as judged by bWAR, 20 were drafted out of high school, 19 were drafted out of college, and 11 were international signings.

Joe Savery is proof drafting a college player early doesn’t always equate with success. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Of those 19 college players drafted, 12 were drafted after the first round.

So, there are good college players to be found in the draft, even if a team doesn’t possess a pick within the top 15.

And while the Joe Savery selection turned out to be a failure, every team has their hits and misses, and the Phils have had success picking college players in the past.

Chase Utley (selected in 2000), Ryan Howard (2001) and Michael Bourn (2003) were college players, with Howard and Bourn selected after the first round.

So why is there a lack of positional talent in the Phils’ minor league system? Does it have anything to do with the organization’s draft philosophy?

“It probably has more to do with developmental successes on that side of the ball more than anything else,” says Parks. “Most teams target up-the-middle talent at the start of the process, and during development and maturity, those players fall down the defensive spectrum. This can leave positional holes, as shortstops become second/third baseman and centerfielders become corner players, etc. If you don’t keep the high-ceiling talent well stocked, attrition and developmental failure will only expand these holes. You could fill them with player with ‘more defined skills,’ but how many college level players actually end up playing up-the-middle positions at the highest level? Not many.”

Floyd, however, says there might be some correlation.

“If they pick high school position guys early and they turn out to be busts,” says Floyd, “it can result in limited depth in areas they were counting on filling.”

Which leads to two obvious questions. Are the Phillies drafting the wrong players? And once they draft those players, are they being properly instructed?

“There are different ways to gauge this,” says Floyd. “There’s no argument that can be made that says Greg Golson and Joe Savery proved to be worthy of being a top draft pick. However, when looking at the type of return that trade chips like Jason Knapp, Anthony Gose, Travis d’Arnaud and Kyle Drabek have gotten for the team, there’s evidence of big value.”

According to Parks, that’s a difficult question to answer.

“It’s a multi-faceted attack that starts with talent identification and acquisition and extends to player development and talent sculpting. You can’t develop low-ceiling players into high-ceiling players, but a team can help players maximize their potential. But the name of the game is talent, and the more you have, the better the odds of developing quality major leaguers.”

To be fair to the Phillies, the team has traded away a lot of talent over the last few years in order to acquire Brad Lidge, Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay, Hunter Pence, Ben Revere and others.

According to ESPN’s Keith Law, former Phillies farmhands Travis d’Arnaud (#14), Jonathan Singleton (#32), and Jarred Cosart (#86) are all top 100 players, and all would obviously make the Phils’ minor league system look a whole lot better.

And, not for nothin’, all three players were drafted out of high school.

There is also the issue of international talent and whether or not the Phillies have allocated enough resources to find quality Latin players.

“Over the last five-eight years, they have been very active in the Latin American market,” says Parks. “Before the cap, they didn’t go on shopping sprees like some teams, but they were present in those particular regions and signed numerous players that have since developed into prospects and major league level talents.  Sal Agostinelli is one of the more respected international evaluators in the market.”

Floyd agrees.

“One could argue they should invest more in international free agent signings, but they’ve done a fine job in recent years signing foreign born players such as Cesar Hernandez, Freddy Galvis and Maikel Franco. With a half-Latino, Spanish-speaking general manager, the Phillies stand out as a more appealing option to many Latin players and have a bit of an advantage in that department.”

At the end of the day, the question remains… is the Phillies’ organizational philosophy flawed when it comes to picking amateur talent?

In other words, are the Phillies missing out on the next possible Chase Utley and Ryan Howard? Floyd says yes.

“In 2004, the Phils took Greg Golson in the first round and Jason Jaramillo (college player) in the second. Soon after Jaramillo was selected, two future All-Stars named Hunter Pence and Dustin Pedroia were drafted. In 2008, Anthony Hewitt was taken 24th overall as a high schooler. He will turn 24-years-old early in the season and hasn’t played above A-level ball yet. College players that remained available after Hewitt include Craig Kimbrel, Danny Espinosa, Christian Friedrich, and Lonnie Chisenhall.

“The Phillies aren’t the only team that missed out on some serious talent, but there’s no denying their early-round approach, as evidenced by players’ results, has been flawed for years.”

Parks, however, disagrees.

“I really like [their organizational philosophy]. I’m a big fan of loud tools and high ceilings, and the risk is worth it, given the potential reward. Growing your own superstar is cheaper than paying for one on the open market or acquiring one via trade.

“I think the Phillies of recent years have a knack for amateur talent acquisition, but they often use the talent as currency to augment and bolster the major league roster. They’ve been very successful in this particular angle. They like to target high-ceiling talent without paying high-ceiling prices. It comes at a risk.”

And the bill has now come due for using up that currency.

The main reason the Phillies rank so low on so many prospect lists is they simply haven’t drafted early enough and have traded away too much talent in order to stay near the top of the Major League pecking order.

That makes this year’s #16 overall pick that much more important. Whether it’s a college or high school player, the Phils should take the best player available. Nothing more.

And the Phillies have had success drafting both high school and college players in the past. They’ve also had huge misses in both departments.

Everyone knows the Phils aren’t going to use advanced metrics and on-base skills to make their draft selections. They’re going to use the “eye-ball” test, and try to project the superstar baseball player hidden inside the “athlete.”

And, armed with the highest pick they’ve had since the 2001 draft, here’s hoping the Phillies use it wisely.