In some ways, the fate of the Phillies organization lies in the hands of new director of player development Preston Mattingly. Depth has been the team’s glaring issue since the franchise emerged from the rebuild.
The Phillies know how to buy superstars. Bryce Harper and Zack Wheeler, the team’s priciest expenditures, could take home the National League’s Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award.
Building depth through free agency and trades is a different story. Of the 11 pitchers acquired via trade or free agency in the prior offseason or during the 2021 season, only three have put up a FanGraphs WAR total above replacement level. Ronald Torreyes and Travis Jankowski, their two best non-roster invitees this year, combined for over 501 plate appearances and just 0.9 fWAR.
For the Phillies to end their decade long playoff drought, let alone make a serious run at a championship, they need to rely less on the free agent market for depth and more on the farm system. Hitting more often on low level free agents will help, but so will more talent from the minor leagues.
“Your minor leagues, it has to be a feeder,” manager Joe Girardi said last week. “It has to be a lifeline. … Because you can’t just go out and sign every free agent. … You have to have help from all different directions.”
Harper echoed a similar sentiment in his last Zoom press conference of the regular season.
“We just can’t keep going out and buying and buying and buying. We need homegrown talent,” Harper said. “When you look at teams that have homegrown talent, those are the teams that have success. I think as a whole, we need our minor leagues to be better.”
In steps the 34-year-old Mattingly.
A former first round pick back in 2006, Mattingly comes to Philadelphia by way of San Diego. He previously worked as the Padres coordinator of major league advance scouting and game planning after serving as the team’s manager of scouting for three seasons. He’s the son of Yankee great and current Marlins manager Don Mattingly.
Mattingly is well-versed in analytics, but he’s also earned the respect of baseball lifers such as Larry Rothschild and Chuck LaMar.
“He’s been taking on responsibilities and getting exposure,” general manager Sam Fuld said at Truist Park last week. “It’s an organization over there that doesn’t necessarily follow the job description and job titles. He’s fortunate for that. I think it’s allowed him to see a lot of the organization. It gives him a real big leg up because this role is not just about the player development system. There’s such importance in connecting with other departments. How he collaborates with the staff is going to be paramount.”
Dombrowski admitted that the previous set up wasn’t ideal. Former assistant general manager Bryan Minniti was in charge of player development, amateur and international scouting. Minniti was demoted in August alongside assistant general manager Scott Proefrock and former director of player development Josh Bonifay.
“And really, in defense, it was a tough situation,” Dombrowski said. “We had one person that was in charge of three different areas. It’s kind of hard to get constant communication and address all the issues when it’s a lot to put on one person’s plate, really.”Embed from Getty Images
In the new set up, Mattingly will report directly to Fuld and assistant general manager Jorge Velandia. Velandia will handle the on-field fundamental aspects of instruction in the minor leagues while Fuld will focus on coordinating information and improving players through analytics.
Mattingly will have full autonomy to run the minor league system, something his predecessor Bonifay was not granted.
Communication is at the forefront of the Phillies’ player development overhaul. A recent report from Matt Gelb of The Athletic detailed the disfunction in the Phillies minor league system. A lot of it was rooted in a lack of cohesive messaging from top to bottom.
“I think one thing we really need to do is make sure everybody is on the same page and understands what that page is,” Dombrowski said. “[Mattingly] will do that.”
According to Gelb’s report, “messages varied from affiliate to affiliate.” The confusion led to a lack of trust among players. Gelb notes that many players nowadays seek coaching outside of the organization, but “if the Phillies wanted more and more of their farmhands to train using their program and their facilities to maintain a consistent message, they did not generate enough trust to make it happen.”
So what does Mattingly need to do — despite all the internal strife he’ll inherit — to ensure that the farm system is the “lifeline” for the big league club? For Dombrowski, it all starts with hiring the right people and communicating well.
“I compare it to being a general manager in one sense because you’re really the general manager of the minor leagues,” Dombrowski said. “Look how many people — as president of baseball operations — how many people help me. Right? Well it’s really the same way with director of player development.
“You do that, but you have to hire the right field coordinator that’s running the field for you. Hiring people that work with them on the training aspect, the conditioning aspect, the use of the analytical information, the medical, all those things blend together nowadays. So it’s the importance of knowing what those things are, addressing those issues, communicating them and making sure you prosper in all those areas and getting people on the same page.”
Three days before the Phillies began their most crucial series in 10 years against the Braves, the team’s Triple A affiliate drew up a lineup with all five of the team’s first round picks from 2015 to 2019 in it. The Sept. 25 starting nine for Lehigh Valley became emblematic of the Phillies’ developmental failures of the past half decade.
The easiest way to spark a culture change in an organization is to win at the big league level. To win, the Phillies need more talent from within.
Dombrowski first heard about Mattingly near the beginning of his tenure with the Phillies. A baseball person who Dombrowski holds in high regard called him one day. He told Dombrowski that Mattingly was “a difference maker.” The baseball person, who Dombrowski declined to name, isn’t the kind of person to pass on a glowing recommendation. Their praise mattered a lot to Dombrowski.
It’s not why the Phillies hired Mattingly, but the Phillies are going to need their new director of player development to live up to expectations.
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