Lacking Faith in the Phillies’ Player Development

One of the news items I covered over at HardballTalk yesterday concerned Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas. The 25-year-old, currently in his fourth season, is off to yet another slow start, slashing .147/.215/.321 over 121 plate appearances. As a result, the Royals are considering demoting him to Triple-A Omaha on Tuesday, which would open up another roster spot for a reliever.

The Royals drafted Moustakas in the first round, second overall behind David Price, in the 2007 draft. He was a consensus top-100 prospect between 2007-11, including rating as the #9 prospect by Baseball America and #7 by Baseball Prospectus going into the 2011 season. In 2010, with Omaha, Moustakas hit 36 home runs with 124 RBI with a .999 OPS, prompting the Royals to promote Moustakas to the big leagues on June 10, 2011.

Kevin Goldsten, current director of pro scouting for the Astros and former writer for Baseball Prospectus, said of Moustakas in July 2010, “He might have the best pure bat speed in the minors,” and called him an “offensive monster”. Baseball America named him the best pure power hitter in the Royals’ system in 2011.

Why am I writing about a former Royals prospect on a Phillies blog? I was thinking about what a great change-of-scenery candidate he is and how the Phillies ought to try to acquire him. The Royals are built to contend for the playoffs this season and might be willing to give him up for an MLB-polished player. Sadly, I remembered that the Phillies have enough trouble turning their own prospects into capable big leaguers and squelched the idea.

As a result of their scorched-earth method of building a contender between 2009-11, the Phillies traded away a large portion of their Minor League system. Observe:

While the Phillies recouped some value back — or at least appeared to at the time — in the Lee trade with the Seattle Mariners and in the Pence trade with the San Francisco Giants, the Phillies were left with a farm system that ranked close to the bottom in baseball. They were 25th in 2012 according to ESPN’s Keith Law; 27th in 2013, also per Law.

So a weak farm system explains the Phillies’ lack of successful young players. But it doesn’t explain how they have not developed a single player over the past five years to come up and be a consistently reliable contributor.

The Phillies traded for center Ben Revere, knowing his flaws. But he has shown no improvement on his ability to read balls off the bat, still taking loopy routes in the outfield in his second year with the team. Reliever Antonio Bastardo has regressed since a dominant 2011, walking close to 12 percent of batters since, including 14.5 percent this season. Aside from a hot May last season, Domonic Brown has shown an inability to adapt to how Major League pitchers are approaching him, and is just as bad defensively in the outfield now as he was three years ago. Out of at least a dozen projectable young arms, not a single one has joined the bullpen and become dependable, though I’d be willing to put blind faith in Jake Diekman. There haven’t been any observable adjustments.

If the Phillies had a success rate over, say, five percent, molding flawed young players into capable Major Leaguers, I’d be frothing at the mouth for the Phillies to take Moustakas off the Royals’ hands. (Just to make it clear: there’s no evidence that the Royals have made him available. He is simply my jumping-off point for my overarching criticism.). He still projects well offensively with the right coaching. He plays an excellent third base. And yet, I have absolutely no confidence that the Phillies would be able to do any better of a job with Moustakas than the Royals — famously inept themselves — did.

Buying low on players like Moustakas is one element to building a team that contends over the long term. Former GM Pat Gillick and even Ed Wade did it well, picking up Shane Victorino through the Rule 5 draft and Jayson Werth off the scrap heap. If the Phillies can’t find and develop talent, then they are even more reliant on doing well in the free agent market and through trades involving big-name players, but we all know how that has turned out in recent years.

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  1. J.R.

    May 12, 2014 03:52 PM

    When discussing how “the Phillies traded away a large portion of their Minor League system”, no one ever includes Gio Gonzalez and Gavin Floyd to the Chicago White Sox for Freddy Garcia.

    • Bill Baer

      May 12, 2014 03:55 PM

      I was focusing on the Ruben Amaro era, but that certainly could go down as one of the worst trades of all-time — not that the Phillies are any strangers to that (Ferguson Jenkins; Ryne Sandberg).

  2. Tim

    May 12, 2014 04:01 PM

    I wonder if there would ever be a revolt against the current draft system by talented players who get drafted by teams with notoriously bad player development. Like if you were a first round pick with great potential, and you get picked by a team like the Royals or Phillies that has consistently shown an inability to turn their raw talent into major league contributors, you’d probably be pretty disappointed. But other than full on holding out, which a few players do every now and then, or spreading rumors that you’d be difficult to sign if a certain team drafted you, you don’t really have any options.

    Obviously there are a million things that happen with prospects, and no sure things. But if you’re super talented, you’ve got to figure that going through, say, the Cardinals player development system, vs. the Royals or Phillies, could have a huge effect on your lifetime earnings. After all, it’s not like football, where you get picked and you play for that team. You get picked and then trust that team to use their instructional resources to turn you into a viable major leaguer if you’re one of the lucky ones. But you have absolutely no control over what kind of system you go through.

    Obviously, this is a hard system to change, since it’s governed by the CBA and the Players Association doesn’t seem to care much about the guys who haven’t made it up the ladder yet, and baseball of course has its trusty anti-trust exemption. But say someone like a Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper – well-known players before they were drafted – were to make an issue out of this. It’s not quite unionizing college athletes, but I wonder if it could ever happen.

  3. Jesse

    May 12, 2014 09:04 PM

    Sadly it will not change any time soon, either. There are no wholesale changes on the horizon. The phillies have become unwatchable and have begun to ruin baseball for me.

  4. PAMcDaddy

    May 13, 2014 07:12 AM

    Interesting thoughts, but question what the standard for a “successful farm system” really is and how Phillies compare to that standard.
    # of players who make the bigs? Stay in the bigs? Amount of WAR produced? % of overall MLB WAR produced by which systems?

    Secondary point is why people seem to conclude the Phils traded away all of these phenomenal prospects thereby creating a bare cupboard when very few of them have made meaningful contributions at the major league level?

    I’d also love to hear more discussion of player coaching at the major/minor league levels. 100% agree about Revere and Brown (even Ryan Howard for that matter) and the holes in their games that don’t seem to be addressed. At a certain experience/age level, is a player’s game his game, or if adjustment at the MLB level is a constant as most seem to agree, what can/should an organization do to facilitate those adjustments?

  5. Carmine Spellane

    May 13, 2014 08:42 AM

    Excellent post, Bill, and one that gets to the core of the problem. Was there an exodus of competent instructional personnel at the minor league level in recent years? Did they leave with Mike Arbuckle? I would like to see the reporters from the papers do an article on this, assuming they could penetrate the force field of secrecy around the organization.

    Are the Phillies’ coaches on the major league squad that incompetent, or are the players too thick headed to change? Other teams like Atlanta and St. Louis and Oakland seem to produce major league ready talent consistently and teach them solid fundamentals and even help guys acquired by trade or free agency improve their game. What happened to our team?

    • RG

      May 13, 2014 11:30 AM

      Yes, why did this happen so suddenly? For a brief time, the minors were cranking out Rollins, Utley, Howard, Burrell, Hamels, Myers, and Madison. Are they drafting the wrong types of player now?

      • MattWinks

        May 13, 2014 11:45 AM

        Gigantic difference in talent acquisition. Utley (15), Burrell (1), Hamels (17) , and Myers (12) were all fairly early first round picks. The last Phillies picks near that high in the draft were Joe Savery (19) and JP Crawford (16). There is a huge talent gap from those top picks to the talent below.

        Howard was a first round talent who fell to the fifth due to injuries and frankly a lot of the issues we have now seen in the majors over the past 3+ seasons. Rollins was a well developed 2nd Round pick. Madson is a great developmental story. But really they strip mined the upside players out in trades, and furthermore in drafts they took higher risk players in an effort to recoup some value of picking so low.

      • EricL

        May 13, 2014 12:01 PM

        You cannot realistically expect a farm system, any farm system, to produce the best first baseman, second baseman, shortstop, and second best LHP in franchise history in any 5-7 year span.

        Hall of Fame caliber players are extremely rare, and the Phillies happened to produce two borderline candidates in Rollins and Utley who peaked basically at the same time. Plus Hamels, plus the 2005-08 version of Howard, who hit his first 200 HR in fewer games than anyone in history. That’s not something that any team can ever expect to replicate. It also hurts your development pipeline when the Phillies were either drafting at the very bottom of the first round, or in a couple of years, were without a first round pick entirely because of free agent signings.

        This isn’t to say that they’ve done a good job at bringing along the players in their system, clearly they have not. But nor is it realistic to expect the Phillies to produce players with the skill level of Utley, Rollins, Howard, Hamels, etc. The talent level of that core home-grown group, at their collective peak, was just insane, and something you’re unlikely to see again any time soon.

  6. Mark66

    May 13, 2014 09:36 AM

    This is why it is so imperative To replace Amaro and the front office and most of the staff personnel.

  7. Charlie

    May 13, 2014 02:43 PM

    On a different note it looks like Franco’s starting to take walks and make adjustments at the plate.

  8. Mark66

    May 13, 2014 03:49 PM

    Amaro and the front office is regretting letting Frandsen go. A big mistake considering the lack of people they have that are capable of playing at the major league level.

  9. yadayada

    May 13, 2014 08:45 PM

    Oh why did we trade away villar, cosart, d’arnaud, singleton, drabek, marson, goose…that team is a lock to make the world series; at least 5 hall of famers in that group. And all stupid Rube got back was Halladay, Lee & Pence.

    Conclusion: baseball is hard.

    • Mark66

      May 14, 2014 09:48 AM

      NO, that’s an EXCUSE

    • hk

      May 15, 2014 06:21 AM

      At the time of the deals, most people thought the Halladay and Lee deals were good, the Oswalt deal was okay and the Pence deal was a significant overpay. If you are going to sarcastically assess the trades – especially the Pence one – on results, it probably makes sense to wait a while considering that:

      * Villar is 23 years old and in his 1st full season in MLB.
      * Cosart is about to turn 24 and is in his 1st full season.
      * D’Arnaud is 25 and in his 1st full season.
      * Singleton is 22 and is one of the top prospects in baseball. He’s has a 1.030 OPS in AAA.
      * Santana is 21 and is still a prospect with a chance to contribute in MLB.
      * Even Gose is only 23 and, while the bloom has come off of his rose, he has produced 1.0 WAR in 350 PA’s, so his defense and base-running may still turn him into a valuable, cheap asset for a few more years

  10. Mike

    May 13, 2014 10:13 PM

    Point well taken about player development. I have wondered this since the beginning of last season. Not just development, but scouting. You can only develop a player so far that just does not have the tools to become an MLB regular.

    Keith Law ranks the Phillies farm system poorly? Where’d he have them ranked when they had all those gems of prospects that became…

  11. Mark66

    May 14, 2014 10:02 AM

    Tues , another home loss, what a game. We love to find ways to loose, great offense and defense-4 hits and 3 errors. Beginning to remind me of the ’62 Mets.

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