We’ve talked about it ad nauseum.
The 76ers are undergoing a “Process,” given quotation marks because it’s titled as a work, maybe a novel or big-budget film. Fans have branded the word as their own, ironing it onto t-shirts and screaming it over Twitter. Some affiliated it solely with one man, Sam Hinkie, who walked away amid some likely tension in the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center. But if the “Process” in quotes is a Sam Hinkie Joint, a trashed failure that springs up in the future as a cult classic, the actual process of building a major sports team that’s happening with the Sixers … well, it’s always happening.
The Phillies are processing, as well. They didn’t put a face behind it, as Hinkie seemed to represent the avatar of new-age thinking battling against the check-handling cronies in ownership and the salivating mass of pitchfork-wielding serfs better known as the traditional sports media. Instead the Phillies did the opposite: for what seemed like ages its face was Ruben Amaro Jr., the general manager who put all his money on red. He agreed to terms with Ryan Howard so many times it blinded us. He traded for Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence, and bought veterans like Marlon Byrd and A.J. Burnett without flinching. And all this while being, at least to us, the last person to realize the Phillies weren’t going to win anymore.
So Amaro was the face of failure, the avatar of old-age thinking battling against the sniveling nerds opening spreadsheets in front offices across baseball and the basement dwellers using heat maps to show us on green-framed websites that the Phillies were dumb.
And so the opposite happened. The Phillies brought in Andy MacPhail, an older guy with a knack for listening to younger people, but didn’t immediately define his position in processing. Quietly – though as quiet as he could be – John Middleton became the voice of ownership, pushing away friendly fan David Montgomery from public consumption. And Amaro made a few relatively good moves, including drafting Aaron Nola, swiping Maikel Franco from the international pool, and trading the likes of Ben Revere, Jonathan Papelbon, Jimmy Rollins and of course, Cole Hamels. Then, as we expected, Amaro was fired. Matt Klentak was hired. More moves were made. Now, suddenly there’s a “Process.”
But we say “Process” because it comfortably defines the act of rebuilding over a period of time. It’s better than tanking, which I can assure you the Phillies aren’t doing, and it indicates something moving forward. But a process isn’t always forward, and like the Sixers, there is always a process happening.
Process in a vacuum
Which brings me to a piece today by former Phillies Nation writer Michael Baumann. He wrote for the Ringer (first day of website operation) that the Phillies have been in the “Process” for years.
“While MacPhail and Klentak have pushed a lot of the right buttons since taking over, they inherited a process — to use a word more commonly attached to the Sixers — that had already been in progress for years. Just like their neighbors across the parking lot, the Phillies are on a path that has involved multiple leadership groups, has frustrated and flummoxed observers, and will not be fully complete for years to come. There’s a promising ending in sight, but to find the start of this process, you have to go back farther than you might think.”
Processes are not this black and white. In 2010 the Phillies were acquiring young talent (like every team does every year) while aggressively attempting to surround the major league team with championship-caliber talent. If there was a black-and-white “Process” in 2010, it was of staying deeply relevant, and at almost all costs. But truthfully Amaro and Co. were doing a bit of everything – acquiring young talent, developing in-house talent, scouring the world for other talent – though the primary identifier is “acquiring high-priced veterans.”
What has changed, and what can be defined to some extent, is the primary identifier. Somewhere in 2014 that identifier began to change. Yes, it was very late, which is partially why Amaro isn’t general manager any longer. Still, in that 2014 draft the Phillies selected a healthy amount of college talent, realizing its minor league system was dry and in need of quick help in the A region, especially. And that summer the Phillies did nothing to help the major league club; the only major move being signing Grady Sizemore, a buy-low candidate. Then, on Aug. 7, the Phils sent surprisingly effective starter Roberto Hernandez to the Dodgers for Victor Arano and Jesmuel Valentin, a very good deal in retrospect. If the Phillies’ primary identifier hadn’t yet changed in the public eye, it certainly did with that trade.
The primary identifier was “acquiring young talent” up until spring training of this year. For a little less than two years, Amaro – with the help of MacPhail and Pat Gillick – and Klentak have been assembling a new crop of prospects that can potentially play in the majors within five years or be moved for other talent.
Now the Phillies are a surprising 26-26 (though falling to expected under-.500 position quickly). And the primary identifier is probably more “developing in-house talent” these days, which means we can more publicly see what we refer to as “Process.” Young players are being promoted to the majors. Some are succeeding (Nola, Vincent Velasquez, Odubel Herrera), some are scuffling but learning (Franco, Jerad Eickhoff, Tyler Goeddel), and all are exciting to watch. Meanwhile we’re hearing more and more about what’s coming in the next wave (J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Mark Appel, Jorge Alfaro, Roman Quinn, Ben Lively). Also exciting. “Developing in-house talent” is usually a time of excitement.
So the primary identifier is different than it was two years ago, and different still than two years before that. But the process the Phillies are undergoing … that’s always there. The process is that of baseball operations, where goals are weighed against each other and strategies are planned and executed against those goals. Not to be glib, but every team has a process. This is just where we are now – at an exciting time of process.
And here’s why we should remember that “process” is ongoing. Baumann notes that “there’s a promising ending in sight.”
I hope that’s false. Because if there is an ending, that means the Phillies will have failed in evolving the process correctly.
I look at the Boston Red Sox, the team that often perfects how major-market baseball teams should be run. The 2003 and ‘04 Red Sox were positioned much like the 2007 and ‘08 Phillies – a few near- or definite hall of famers were surrounded by good to great role players. The Sox – like those Phillies – won a title. But instead of buying high-priced talent after that season, the Sox lost Pedro Martinez to the Mets and remained relatively static. They still made the postseason.
Then the Sox traded prospect Hanley Ramirez to the Marlins for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, but again remained relatively quiet while allowing young talent to develop. That young talent, plus Beckett and Lowell, helped the Sox win another title in 2007.
The Sox continued to contend because of that talent, which continued to develop. But high-priced talent, a reliance on aging veterans, injuries and bad clubhouse culture spiraled the Sox in 2012. So they cut the fat quickly, tinkered with low-cost talent and began developing its farm system once again. The tinkered 2013 Sox caught fire and won the World Series, and though the ‘14 and ‘15 Sox weren’t good, their prospects tore up the minors.
Now, in 2016, the Sox are terrific, backed by many of those prospects who developed over the past few years.
The Sox’s primary identifier changed quickly from one year to the next, sometimes within months. But the process was almost always apparent: Keep building for 5-7 years down the road. Don’t fall too hard in love with anyone.
That’s how there’s never an end in sight. Give the Sox two or three years and you’ll see quite a few changes in Boston, leading to another title contender by 2021. If the Phillies can use that blueprint as a process, and usher in a new era that never quite bottoms out, we’ll finally have the answers we’ve been seeking for so long. And we won’t have to speak about “Process” anymore.