Forget Pat Burrell. The Phillies greatest offseason loss was Mike Arbuckle.
Sure, that’s a heavy statement, but there is great truth in it: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, Ryan Madson. There is more truth: Scott Rolen, JD Drew, Gavin Floyd, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz, Marlon Byrd, JA Happ, Kyle Kendrick, Geoff Geary, Adam Eaton, Michael Bourn.
Between 1993 and 2008, Arbuckle scouted and drafted (overseeing or primary) or signed 33 major league players — yes, even Eaton. But after the Phillies won the 2008 World Series, and after the organization promoted Ruben Amaro Jr. to general manager, Arbuckle decided there was nothing more he could do within the system, gracefully bowing out and accepting a senior adviser role with the Kansas City Royals.
Mark my words: the Kansas City Royals will be competitive within three years.
In fact, baseball experts are nudging the powder blues as the 2009 version of the Tampa Bay Rays: A feel-good, front-office savvy franchise with young talent and humble expectations. The 2008 Royals finished 75-87, losing badly in a manner like the four seasons prior. But the management is sharp — General Manager Dayton Moore is a student of the John Schuerholz style of winning, and is committed to speedy offense and young pitching. Hitters Alex Gordon, Mike Aviles, David DeJesus, Mark Teahen and Billy Butler are all on the upswing, while pitchers Zack Greinke, Luke Hochevar, Kyle Davies and Joakim Soria anchor a pitching staff that closely echoes the ’08 Rays. Are they the next Rays? Maybe not, but that’s not even where Arbuckle comes in.
Where Arbuckle comes in is the long-term planning of the franchise, and the Royals are in solid shape for the next few years. The Arbuckle strategy of drafting netted the Phillies some unbelievably talented players, but the result formulated after a decade. The same will be true for Kansas City, but this time there’s already a solid base working.
But back to that draft strategy. Arbuckle’s style was to draft green, five-tool-style players early, signing them around slot because of their relative lack of baseball experience. The strategy seemed ridiculous, and read that way with players such as Reggie Taylor, but once in a while a player will pan out. Arbuckle’s big winner here was Rollins, who of course has become a top-level, MVP-caliber shortstop. With Arbuckle’s hand in the draft pot, the Royals will score one, too.
Another hallmark of Arbuckle’s drafts is the run of college players toward the middle. He oversaw the 2001 draft, which brought one-tool college hitter Howard to the Phillies. Now Howard is the game’s most-feared slugger. Could the Royals gain a guy like Howard? It’s possible.
Of course it’s possible with anybody helping the general manager. But Arbuckle’s style has demonstrated three sure things: The ability of high-risk, high-reward picks to pan out; the potential of middle-round picks to net big returns; and third, a solid foundation of organizational role players. That list includes your Byrds, your Marlon Andersons, your Gearys, your Johnny Estradas. And while it took a while and a new general managing philosophy, Arbuckle helped turn the Phillies farm system to respectability.
The Royals also have a respectable farm system, rated closely with the Phillies. This means Arbuckle is entering the second phase with Kansas City — the system is in place; now he has to stock it the way he knows how: With organizational role players and the occasional big boom. So instead of calling the Royals the next Rays, think of the 2009 Royals as the 2001 Phillies: Some of the pieces are now in place, but there’s some digging to do yet.
Sure the Phillies won’t miss Arbuckle too badly, but they lost a man who knew how to help construct a franchise on the rebound. In 1993 Arbuckle inherited a franchise with blind hopes at the major league and minor league levels. While the ’93 team proved to be a one-trick pony, the lower levels featured highly touted Tyler Green and Dave Coggin. Arbuckle’s second draft pick was Rolen. It got good from there. And now the Phillies are reaping the rewards, locking up most of Arbuckle’s finds to long-term deals. Suddenly these guys are the class of baseball.
The Royals might be in the same league a few years from now. They certainly made a step in the right direction.
Mug of Malcolm is published every Sunday at www.philliesnation.com