The Phillies have gained a reputation as one of the league’s best drafting organizations, and for good reason. The 2008 World Champions exemplify this best. The starting lineup had four players drafted and developed by the Phillies, including two MVP winners and a perennial All-Star. Two of the four starters in the playoff rotation were first round picks by the Phillies, and all of these ingredients mixed together forms the core of a championship roster. These six players, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Cole Hamels and Brett Myers, combined to make less than 50 million dollars, leaving them plenty of money to find complementary players and build the rest of the team.
The average age of those players was just 28 years old in 2008, right in the usual physical prime for baseball players. Except for Rollins in 1996, the Phillies drafted one of each of those players in the drafts from 1998 to 2002. Although their drafts those years weren’t too productive aside from those individuals, getting one elite player like Rollins, Howard, Utley or Hamels can make a draft class. If teams find stars in the draft, they’ll soon be playing winning baseball. Judging by the Phillies’ timeline going from drafting those players to them winning a World Series, drafts really start paying dividends five to 10 years after they take place. Or, if a team has a poor draft, they’ll pay for their mistakes in five to 10 years.
One factor in the Phillies’ disappointing 2012 season and their murky feature is surely the aggressive, win-now trades executed by Ruben Amaro depleting the organization’s depth. That’s a viable approach to winning when core pieces are already in place, but eventually, a team making those moves will have to pay the piper, and maybe that time is now. The prospects traded away are slowly trickling into the majors now, and maybe the Phillies will miss some of them. Some of their problems date further back than that.
As good as they were at drafting from 1998-2002, that’s how bad they were the following three years, and maybe they’re paying the price for that now. In that three year period, the Phillies forfeited two first round picks and a second rounder for signing Jim Thome, Jon Lieber and David Bell, and they didn’t gain any back for losing free agents themselves. Those picks aren’t locks to become key players, but they’re very valuable assets that they didn’t have. Missing picks makes it imperative that they hit with the limited opportunities they had, and it’s something they didn’t do.
To see how the Phillies stacked up against everyone else in the 2003-2005 drafts, I counted the number of players each team drafted and signed in these three drafts. Being signed is an important distinction; while the Phillies drafted Vance Worley in 2005 out of high school, I didn’t count him because they didn’t actually sign him until 2008 after his college career. Just like how the Dodgers don’t get credit for drafting David Price in 2004 even though they didn’t have a chance of signing him. Maybe these numbers change slightly over a couple years, but at this point it seems unlikely there are many sleepers from these drafts still waiting to make their debut.
The Phillies had 12 players from these three drafts to reach the majors. 22 teams got more than 12 major leaguers from these drafts, all the way up to Detroit and Los Angeles with 21 each. Last in the majors is Pittsburgh with only nine players from these drafts. It doesn’t appear that there’s any relationship between quantity of major leaguers drafted in those three years and current success. The Brewers and Padres had 18 and 17 players from those drafts, and teams at the bottom like the Yankees and Pirates probably wouldn’t trade places in the standings with those two.
For teams like the Phillies who proved to have a core in place already, getting quantity over quality in a draft could be okay. However, a majority of their 12 major leaguers from those drafts were just guys getting a cup of coffee. Michael Bourn is the only everyday player they drafted and signed from those years, and Kyle Kendrick and J.A. Happ are the only two who started in an ML rotation for a significant amount of time. Brad Zeigler is having a nice ML career, but the Phillies cut him less than a year after they drafted him. Other than that, their only major leaguers are nondescript players that either populate the back end of an ML roster or are frequently shuttled between AAA and the majors.
To look at it another way, I totaled up the WAR accumulated by the players each team drafted. Teams would rather get two elite players in a draft than a dozen spare parts. I’m not a huge fan of the stat, but to find an objective way to measure the value the quality teams are getting from the drafts as opposed to quantity, it serves its purpose. These numbers will certainly change over the years because there are plenty of players still in their primes or just entering them, and that will probably hurt the Phillies’ standing even more. In this measurement, they don’t stack up much better.
Ten teams have a lower total WAR than the Phillies from these three drafts, and if we look back on this in 5-10 more years, that could be down to five. Michael Bourn counts for over 50% of the Phillies’ total himself, and he’s entering his post-prime seasons. Some of the teams below the Phillies, such as the Padres (Chase Headley), White Sox (Gio Gonzalez), Reds (Jay Bruce), Rays (Jeremy Hellickson) and Mariners (Adam Jones) have younger players who may not even be in the prime of their careers yet. There’s a good chance some of those teams pass the Phillies as their original picks like Bourn and Kendrick don’t amass much more value over their careers.
While they’re having a down season, it’s not a surprise that Boston leads the pack in value from the 2003-2005 drafts. In those three years, they drafted an MVP (Dustin Pedroia), a near MVP (Jacoby Ellsbury) and players like Jonathan Papelbon, Clay Buchholz and David Murphy among others. Other winning teams like Detroit (Justin Verlander) and Washington (Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman) are among the top of the class, but it’s not a perfect predictor of current success. Milwaukee and Toronto are both in the top five, and they’re not having their best years.
To be clear, this probably isn’t the biggest factor in the Phillies’ current struggles and maybe not even a big one at all. Teams that presently have less value than them from these drafts illustrate that. Both the Giants and Rays have been among the most successful teams in the league recently, but their 2003-2005 drafts aren’t looking great right now. Why are they so good then? They nailed their picks in the surrounding drafts. In 2002, the Giants drafted Matt Cain in the first round. From 2006-2008, they hit on three straight #1 picks in Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey. Same with the Rays. In 2002, they landed B.J. Upton. In 2006 and 2007, they chose Evan Longoria and David Price. While all of these players except for Cain were taken in the top 10, there are still hardly any guarantees in the MLB draft, and they made the most of their picks.
Although the Phillies took Hamels in the 2002 draft, they followed up our three year window with two more poor drafts. Domonic Brown represents their only chance to extract value from the 2006 and 2007 drafts, and clearly the jury is still out on him. The 2008 draft has some promise, but the point remains. They went five straight years with very little to show for it at the ML level. It’s difficult to sustain success when a team goes that long without drafting and developing their own players.
While looking at old draft results isn’t a perfect predictor of current success, it is important to keep in mind. As the Phillies tinker and try to salvage their window of success, look at some of their recent drafts. Will they get the value they need out of those picks? It hasn’t helped that many of the top players they were developing were traded, but they need to return to the success they had in the draft 10-15 years ago if they’re going to turn it around. At some point, they won’t be able to throw enough money at their problems to fix them.
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