Phillies Expect Payoff From ‘Patient’ Rebuild
CLEARWATER, Fla.—A walk through the Phillies’ minor league complex on a March game day offers evidence that the organization’s rebuild is advancing.
Card collectors and autograph hounds are everywhere. Have Sharpie, please sign!
It wasn’t this way a few years ago. The Phillies’ great run from 2007 through 2011 included five National League East titles, two pennants and a World Series title, but it ended with an airbag-deploying thud.
In subsequent years the Phillies lacked the stock of prospects to stay in the fast lane. You didn’t need a Top 10 Prospects list to tell you that the organization lacked prospects. You could tell by the lack of collectors at the minor league complex, because they want autographs that will be worth big coin down the road.
The Phillies decided to stop patching what remained of the 2008 World Series winners and embark on a full rebuild in 2015. The organization is in better shape three years later, thanks to improved drafting, fruitful trades and a notable international signings.
"One of the things we’ve worked hard to do—and this predates me—is acquire as many talented young players as we can,” general manager Matt Klentak said. "We know the inevitable is going to happen—somebody will get hurt or not perform as well as you thought.
"But there’s also going to be a player who turns out to be a full grade better than you thought. Hopefully there will be multiple players like that. It’s not an exact science. We know that. Our position is to have as many of them as we can and take our chances on volume.”
Klentak came aboard in October 2015 after the team bottomed out with 99 losses. Moving into his second season, he is pleased with the progress but knows there is still work to do to build a sustained winner.
"I understand this is a passionate town and a passionate fan base that wants to win,” he said, "but it doesn’t happen overnight. We’re taking steps to get to where we want to go, and we’re pleased with where we stand.”
Klentak, 36, holds an economics degree from Dartmouth, so it’s pretty safe to say he doesn’t count autograph collectors at the minor league complex as a legitimate indicator of progress.
The Phillies improved by eight wins in 2016 and ended the season with the second-youngest roster in the majors at a shade under 27 years old.
The club added 11 prospects to its 40-man roster in November. No other team added more than eight.
Two years after posting the lowest farm system winning percentage (.435), counting domestic affiliates only, and sending no teams to the playoffs, Phillies farm clubs had the best domestic mark in baseball (.595) and four made the playoffs in 2016.
Among that group was a prospect-studded Double-A Reading team that, led by power hitters Dylan Cozens and Rhys Hoskins, won 89 games, second-most in the minors. The prospect-laden Rookie-level Gulf Coast League team went 43-15 behind the contributions of center fielder Mickey Moniak, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, and righthander Sixto Sanchez, an eye-popping prospect who has drawn comparisons with the Cardinals’ Carlos Martinez.
The Phillies did not win in the minors in 2016 with veteran clubs. All of their domestic teams were younger than league average.
Klentak is trying to build a club that "controls the strike zone” on both sides of the ball, and the concept is being drilled into minor leaguers. Pitchers must throw strikes to advance, while hitters must grind out at-bats, get on base and not chase excessively.[caption id="attachment_195154" align="alignnone" width="640"] J.P. Crawford (photo by Cliff Welch)[/caption]
Progress in this area is evident. Phillies pitchers ranked best in the minors with just 2.87 walks per nine innings and 11th with 8.02 strikeouts per nine. Offensively, the organization’s walk rate among full-season teams improved from 7.3 to 8 percent and isolated power soared from .112 to .139.
Much of that power came from Cozens, a hulking right fielder who led the minors with 40 homers, and Hoskins, a first baseman who hit 38 homers. That pair will move to Triple-A Lehigh Valley this season and be part of a club that will put a legitimate prospect at every position except third base.
"We feel very strongly about the level of position prospects at our higher levels,” club president Andy MacPhail said. "Virtually every position at Triple-A will be manned by someone who we believe has a major league future, and that’s rare. Often you’re signing minor league free agents to fill.”
The Lehigh Valley rotation could also be staffed completely with young pitchers. Candidates include Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Alec Asher, Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively and Mark Appel. Each of those righthanders arrived in a trade that has coincided with the rebuild—Eflin for Jimmy Rollins, Lively for Marlon Byrd, Pivetta for Jonathan Papelbon, and Thompson and Asher as part of the package received from the Rangers for Cole Hamels. All of those trades were made by former GM Ruben Amaro Jr.
The Hamels deal already has pushed the rebuild forward. Righthander Jerad Eickhoff, who probably ranked fourth among prospects in the deal at the time, led the big league staff in starts (33), innings (197.1) and ERA (3.65) last season. The other players in that deal, particularly Thompson, catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams, are a big reason the farm system has jumped from the bottom third to the top third over the past two years.
Klentak’s first big deal sent young closer Ken Giles to the Astros for power-armed righty Vince Velasquez, already a member of the big league rotation, the enigmatic Appel and strike-throwing righty Tom Eshelman.
A few years ago, the Phillies had trouble finding enough arms to get through September. Their improved rotation depth, which started with the drafting of first-rounder Aaron Nola in 2014, is the most tangible sign of progress in the rebuild.
Dusty Wathan, who will manage Lehigh Valley after five seasons at Reading, sees the progress.
"A couple of years back we sat in meetings and said, ‘How are we going to get five guys to start at Lehigh Valley?’ ” he said. "Now we have to figure out how we’re going to get all these guys innings.”
From Alfaro, shortstop J.P. Crawford and center fielder Roman Quinn at Triple-A, to second baseman Scott Kingery at Double-A, to Moniak and Sanchez at low Class A Lakewood, the Phillies have a deep stock of middle-of-the-diamond players.
While the Phillies have volume, they lack a surefire franchise player, such as Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa or Manny Machado. The Phillies don’t have that guy, but maybe one will develop. Or maybe they will use some of their prospect depth to acquire one of those guys in a trade.
Alternately, the organization could use one of its other strengths—money—to find its franchise changer.
The building of a nucleus in Philadelphia, which has already started with Rule 5 outfielder Odubel Herrera, second baseman Cesar Hernandez, third baseman Maikel Franco and starters Eickhoff, Nola and Velasquez, could coincide with a group of megastars who will hit the free-agent market after the 2018 season. With a deep-pocketed ownership group that has already proven it will spend, the Phillies are nicely positioned to take a big leap forward.
Those owners remain committed to building from the bottom up.
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"The only option for me is winning,” said John Middleton, the team’s billionaire managing partner. "But we need to build this the right way. We need to be patient. If you look at the teams that are willing to stay the course and do it the right way, they get rewarded—and that’s what we need to do.”