The Phillies, on most nights, start six position players that were drafted and developed through the Philadelphia minor league ranks, by far, the most in baseball. It takes only a quick review of batting averages, on-base percentages, and the Phillies won/loss record to demonstrate that this has become a detriment. Of course, it wasn’t always this way. In 2008, five of eight Phillies’ positional starters had been drafted or signed by the Phillies. And it wasn’t uncommon in 2008, and even 2009, 2010, and possibly 2011, to hear national broadcasters in the playoffs comment that the Phillies were among the best franchises in developing talent.
Oh, how things have changed.
Since 2006, the Phillies have not produced an above-average regular position player for even just one season since Michael Bourn and Carlos Ruiz were called up. An above-average regular is defined as a player worth two or more fWAR. Of course, home-grown position players have had great seasons in that span: Jimmy Rollins won the 2007 MVP, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard were multiple-time All-Stars, and Ruiz has been among the National League’s most consistent catchers. But no player that the Phillies have drafted, kept or traded, has had one season of two wins or more.
Note: 2014 is estimated at 59% of 2 fWAR or 1.19 WAR.
As you can see from the chart above, these type of players aren’t exactly uncommon. In an average year over the last eight seasons, you could expect any given team to have about four and a half players that are above average, so a team will have either four or five of these players. As you can see with the dotted green line, the Phillies, at one point, had many, many above-average players and have since struggled to replace them.
The easiest response to this would be to say that the Phillies traded away all of their young talent to acquire players like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. While the Phillies certainly did trade away a number of young players, and in some cases, top prospects, not one position player has had a season above two fWAR either. There are a handful of players that have a chance to break this streak: the departed Travis d’Arnaud, Domingo Santana, and Jonathan Singleton all are expected to be above-average Major Leaguers while Domonic Brown posted a 1.7 WAR season last year. Cody Asche is in the midst of a negative-win season.
What’s interesting is where the average and below-average players are found. For instance, Rollins and Utley have been a combined 15 of 16 in above-average seasons from 2007-2014, meaning the Phillies home-grown veterans up the middle have continue to have delivered. Similarly, veteran catcher Ruiz has been above average in five of the last eight seasons. Where the Phillies have struggled to replace production is the outfield. It is this production that creates the complex decision of whether or not to hold on to veterans or attempt to receive valuable prospects in return.
Without even having to worry above having to find top-notch talent in three of the most talent-scarce positions, the Phillies haven’t developed anyone anywhere else on the diamond. Sure, many would point to misses on draft picks like Anthony Hewitt and Zach Collier in 2008 but the issue goes back further. Marti Wolever, Phils Director of Scouting, and company have not drafted an above-average Major League regular since Bourn in 2003.
Yes, it has been 11 years the Phillies have drafted an above-average regular. And an even crazier 16 years since the Phillies found an above-average international free agent.
I will cede the following: a team drafting a high schooler has six years to get them to the Majors and five years, for simplicity’s sake, a player 19 years or older. Excluding anyone from 2010 on, there is a gap of eight drafts where the Phillies whiffed on drafting and developing a Major League regular. This includes players they traded away. In that time, the Phillies also did not find and develop an international player to above-averageness, either.
So, what exactly is the problem? Well, there were a few chicken and egg situations. Or at least some situations that became chicken and egg.
First, the Phillies lost their first round pick in 2009 by signing Raul Ibanez. This was the first instance of the development drought rearing its ugly head: the Phillies had no in-house replacement in left field and chose to sign a Type-A free agent, costing them their pick. And while the Phillies lost their first rounders in 2011 and 2012 for signing Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon, respectively when they chose to upgrade upon in-house pitching options, the signings complicated finding position players. As this cycle repeated, it made it more difficult to determine where it started.
Secondly, as the team’s general manager demonstrated the weekend Jimmy Rollins broke the hit record and didn’t quite understand the difference between at-bats and plate appearances, the Phillies have only a passing knowledge of modern baseball analytics, relying primarily on scouting. The strange aversion and arrogance toward using every possible tool for analysis has slowly choked the teams’ chances for extended success like a boa constrictor searching for the neck of its prey.
Third, there is an an element of trading a player a year too late rather than a year too early or adding unnecessary extra years or options to already above-market contracts. Deals for Ibanez and Placido Polanco were predicted to be one year too long and both vindicated nay sayers by producing subpar final years. In the cases of Papelbon and Marlon Byrd, additional vesting options are scaring teams off from discussing the veteran Phils in trade talks.
For Phillies fans, the problem runs beyond General Manager Ruben Amaro yet, some of the blame must be put on Amaro because the problem continues on his watch. The same scouting director that selected Utley in 2000, Howard in 2001, Cole Hamels in 2002, and Bourn in 2003 has gone on an unprecedented cold streak, missing on higher probability picks and failing to nab an above-average position player in the draft in 13 years and failing to sign an above-average international player in 16.
In an odd way, credit should go to Amaro for dealing talent that did not develop and turning them into pieces that helped them remain competitive. d’Arnaud, Santana, and Singleton have the best chances to become above-average Major Leaguers with Jonathan Villar having an outside shot of those who were traded away. But with the cupboard bare and the Phillies in the basement, this is not a time to celebrate such an achievement. No, it’s time to talk about why the Phillies haven’t had a new, above-average Major Leaguer since Bourn and Ruiz became Major Leaguers.