This, Phillies fans, is the biggest day of the year.
There is no game today, however. And no, this isn’t the trade deadline, though it seems the only deal the Phillies may strike this season would involve Jeremy Hellickson.
No, today is the First-Year Player Draft, and the Phillies have the first pick.
But the first pick isn’t the reason that today is important. And really, this day is merely a culmination of months of intense scouting and detailed strategizing. By 7 p.m., when the draft process begins live on MLB Network, Johnny Almaraz, Matt Klentak and the Phillies would have secured their decision for the first pick. And it’s likely they would have secured terms for signing that pick, allowing them to move onto the more fascinating portion of the night: everything else.
It’s well aware that, specifically, the Phillies, Reds and Braves are in deep rebuilding mode. The teams are in varying stages: the Phils are now developing young talent at the major league level; the Reds still have quite a few veterans hanging around as they transition; and the Braves have a strong farm system and are just now starting to move players through the pipeline.
Tonight, though, the Phillies pick first. The Reds go second. And the Braves pick third. Later, the Phils pick 42nd, but the Reds also pick 35th, and the Braves also go 40th, thanks to the “competitive balance lottery,” which gives low payroll teams an additional pick before the second round.
This means the Reds and Braves, especially, could pick a player under slot at the top of the draft, then wait until their second picks to go big on a premier talent the Phillies may have been targeting with over-slot money.
But these aren’t the only teams that could employ such a strategy: teams with two picks before the Phils’ second include the Padres (24, 25), Rockies (4, 38), Athletics (6, 37), White Sox (10, 26), Pirates (22, 41), Nationals (28, 29) and Mets (19, 31), and both the Cardinals (23, 33, 34) and the cash-cow Dodgers (20, 32, 36) have three before the Phillies’ second.
But the Phillies can spend more money than most of these teams. Only the Reds, with $13,923,700, can spend more than the Phillies, at $13,405,200, without being penalized.
All that is why everything after Pick 1 is important. At Pick 1 the Phillies have leverage over every team in baseball. They can do whatever they want, pick whoever they choose and spend however much they feel they must to ensure the pick will sign. But, as we’ve heard now, there’s nothing surefire at No. 1. There are no naked-eye Bryce Harpers, players who are nearly guaranteed to change the shape of a franchise.
Of course, there is possibly one franchise-changing player out there. The Phillies, Reds, Braves and everyone else picking near the top of this draft will be hoping whoever they grab could be that player. But we probably won’t know for a few years.
And that’s what makes the rest of this draft so much more important. The Phillies will select dozens of players between the first pick and the last pick this weekend. It’s probable that, the further the Phillies get from that first round, the farther they get from a franchise-altering player, but could the Phils bust slot for some risky high schooler late in the draft, and can that player turn into the next great star? Sure.
More likely is that as the Phillies go through that second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth rounds, they’ll be hoping to nab some heralded player over slot. And that player could turn into something special. Or even just a decent regular. Or role player.
Right now the Phillies can identify a few relatively sure pieces for the future, starting possibly with J.P. Crawford, Maikel Franco, Odubel Herrera and Aaron Nola. Maybe Nick Williams is in there. Maybe Vince Velasquez sticks. But there’s still a ways to go, still plenty of talent to figure out before playoff runs can be made. Today is about collecting a bunch of that talent, and with the money they have and the flexibility they own, the Phillies can really make a splash.
So don’t just look at the first pick as everything. It’s not even half the conversation. A successful draft takes advantage of the situation, and this year’s optionality and uncertainty puts the Phillies in a crucial position. They need to hit on a few guys, not just the first guy, and they’ll have plenty of competition in reaching that goal.