Hello, its me. Since we last chatted, a lot has happened. The draft has come and gone, Andy McPhail has arrived, and the Phillies have lost a ton of baseball games. Today is the Futures Game, which means we’ll see JP Crawford (for a while) and Aaron Nola (probably not at all) and we’ll dream about what could be in the future. In the spirit of thinking about the future, I’m going to provide the blueprint for rebuilding the Phillies. I had originally intended to put this into a Powerpoint presentation which would have been part of my application for the Phillies GM job, but I just don’t think I can leave my current job. So, my loss is the Phillies gain, as I’m giving away the blueprint for free. You’re welcome, Andy. Details below the fold
One of the first things I wrote when I emerged from my 2+ year hiatus was about rebuilding the Phillies. I’m going to touch on some similar concepts, because what I wrote then is still applicable now. At least some of it. I am going to try and sketch things out and be as succinct as possible. I think we need to understand that rebuilding the Phillies is more than just fixing the 25 man roster or the 40 man roster. It involves rebuilding the entire infrastructure of the organization. It isn’t an easy task, but it is a doable task.
Before going through each of the individual areas, there are a few things we need to establish:
- The Phillies are a large market team. For the duration of the halycon years (07-11) they ran out very high payrolls, near the top of all teams in baseball. Those resources are still there. A new, lucrative TV deal is in place, and the ownership group is seemingly willing to spend money. This separates the Phillies from other teams that need to rebuild on a tight budget, which normally involves dumping big salaries and resisting the free agency market. The Phillies do not fit this mold
- You can turn a team around quickly. Quickly is relative, but there does not need to be a 6-7 year plan for rebuilding a large market team, at least at the big league level.
- As the Giants have shown, you don’t need to build a team full of superstars to win it all. The Giants have won 3 of the last 5 World Series with a small core of stars and a large group of solid players and overachievers. You could argue none of their WS winning teams were as strong as the 2011 Phillies 25 man roster, for instance. But it didn’t matter. Build a solid team, and anything can happen
Now, lets get to the plan.
Step 1 – Overhaul the Player Development department
This one isn’t as sexy as signing big free agents or making a splash in Cuba, but it may just be the most important part of the plan. If you look around at the teams that have consistently won over the last 4-5 years, you’ll see teams filled with guys who were mid-late round picks who turned into quality major leaguers. The Giants current roster is filled with guys like this. The Cardinals have also done this, finding guys with big arms outside the first few rounds and turning them into quality major league arms, especially in the bullpen. The Phillies haven’t had the same kind of success, especially in recent years. Drafting talent is one thing, but every guy you draft is going to require refinement and polish, and the Phillies haven’t gotten the most out of what they’ve drafted. If you look at their two best prospects (Crawford and Nola) both were considered polished when drafted, Crawford drew praise for his approach even as a high schooler, and Nola was considered the most polished pitcher in the 2014 draft, and as polished a college starter since maybe Mike Leake. There wasn’t much to do there. But what they haven’t done recently is find that 4th or 5th rounder who they can turn into an above average big league regular.
In the draft, you’re going to get 1 shot (your first round pick) at a guy with loud tools and present polish. As you get into the 2nd/3rd/4th round, you are drafting guys that require more polish, and as you move to the 5th round and beyond, you are drafting raw tools or college guys with limited upside. It is the job of your player development staff to take these raw gems and polish them up. The Phillies, for years, took a flier on tools and raw upside, with the thought that they could take those guys and turn them into stars. And it hasn’t worked. There is no way to say that Anthony Hewitt would have turned into a star had the Phillies had a better player development group in place, but you’d have to admit the chances would have been higher.
So how do you fix this? Well, you hire a guy with a proven track record in the player development field and then you let him build his staff. You create a plan for the organization regarding player development, and you teach that same plan from AAA down through instructional league. Whether that be how to work counts, how to throw strike 1, or anything else, you start from AAA and you teach the same thing all the way down the line. You also constantly evaluate the guys in your PD group and determine if they are doing what you are trying to implement, and if you can upgrade or bring in a better alternative. You supplement your core team with roving instructors who can supplement the general plan with specified, 1 on 1 plans for your elite prospects. Player development is the foundation you build your house (major league club) on. With the changes around the game and teams being more willing to retain their best guys through their FA years, you need to build a big part of your roster from within, and having the best, most qualified player development group is the necessary starting point. The Phillies need to do a complete overhaul here.
Step 2 – Improve and expand the use of advanced metrics
It appears this one is at least moving forward, and the Phillies have finally joined the rest of MLB in the 21st century. However, it isn’t just about developing some new proprietary metric that measures player value. One area where the Phillies could probably become a leader is investing even more money in sports science and focusing on biomechanics, not just for pitchers, but for all players. Some teams appear to be dabbling in this, but I’m not aware of any team that has made a huge push to add this component to their organization. For those of you who follow European football, you may be aware of the Milan Lab, which was an attempt by one of Italy’s biggest clubs to find a competitive edge with regard to player fitness and keeping players fit and on the field. The Phillies have struggled with injuries as they’ve transitioned from golden age to garbage age. While the mysteries of the elbow and Tommy John surgery may remain a mystery forever, the Phillies may be able to mine value out of a big investment in sports science.
Beyond this new approach to medicine/health, the Phillies obviously need to make a serious commitment to analytics and understanding how to value players properly. It seems they have some sort of plan for this, so I won’t drone on about that.
Step 3 – Clean out the 40 man roster
It seems a fair bet that the Phillies will trade a few guys in the next 6 weeks or so, and they are probably going to try and acquire prospects, not major league assets, so for now, lets just look at what is on the 40 man roster. As you obviously know, managing the 40 man roster is very important. You start the season with 25 guys, and guys get hurt, so you need to be able to draw upon your depth, especially your pitching depth, and carrying dead weight on the 40 man roster limits what you can do.
The 2015 season is a flaming hot dumpster fire. Right now, the goal should be to lose just enough games to finish with the worst record in baseball, and they are comfortably on track in that regard. So, you can use the rest of the 2015 season to look at what is on the 40 man roster and determine which guys are worth keeping. Here are the guys that should certainly be evaluated:
Jesse Biddle – Biddle is only 23, but he’s already getting close to a career crossroads. Its tough to give up on a first round pick, but at some point the Phillies will need to determine if he can at least be a solid major league reliever. Giving him a handful of appearances in August/September might give them a glimpse.
Nefi Ogando – He’s 26. He’s pitched well at AA and is now at AAA. He’s 26. Either he’s going to be useful, and now, or he’s not. When Papelbon is traded, he should be called up and put in the bullpen and the Phillies should determine what he can do.
Seth Rosin, Hector Neris, and Joely Rodriguez – All 3 guys look like longshots to contribute anything of value in the big leagues. Rosin is 26. Neris is 26. Rodriguez is 23.
Aaron Altherr – He’s 24. He’s finally produced this year, putting up a .300/.376/.497 line, but this is his 7th year in the organization. It took him 4.5 years to get above A+ ball. Either he’s a late bloomer and he’s ready to take off now, or he’s not going to be anything more than a cup of coffee guy. There is no reason why he should not be getting semi-regular at bats in the majors after the trade deadline.
There is a whole lot of crap on the 40 man that will presumably be dumped after the 2015 season (Blanco, Jordan Danks, etc) but evaluating the guys who are still on the fringes of the prospect world and figuring out what you have is just as important, because those guys are taking up spots that could be used for other acquired assets.
Step 4 – Obliterate the Latin America/International market in 2016
With the signing of Jhailyn Ortiz and Rafael Marchan, the Phillies are just about at the limit of their allotted bonus pool, which is why they have traded for additional bonus money. It appears their plan is to stay under the cap this year, so they are not limited during the next 2 windows. Of course, the threat of an international draft is there, and what that could mean for teams that are incurring penalties now/in the next year is still unknown. The Phillies can take 1 of 2 approaches: They can choose to go all in now, signing anyone and everyone who comes out of Cuba between now and next July, or they can wait, stay under their cap, and then try to dominate the next window. The Yankees, famously, did this last year, signing tons of guys for big bonuses and spending close to $20m, when their bonus allotment was like 1/10 of that. Most of the top 2015 guys who were eligible to sign on July 2 have already been signed. Some guys in next year’s class probably have verbal deals in place. So if the Phillies are going to act next year, they should start working out those (illegal) deals now. That would mean they would not get involved with any of the Cuban defectors who sign before July 2, 2016 (because that would put them over their limit), so it is certainly a risk they need to measure. But the point is the same: the international market is still one place they can flex their financial muscle. If they wanted to win the bidding for Yasmany Tomas, they could have. If they want the next big thing to come out of Cuba or Japan, they can get them. If the opportunity arises in the next 6 months for the Phillies to sign 2 or 3 potentially elite talents from Cuba (that would count against the international spending pool), then maybe blowing the box for the 2015 window is the right move. If they don’t see those guys, then they should wait for next year and be prepared to spend $15M+ to grab 4 or 5 of the top July 2 talents. Will any of those guys turn into stars? Who knows. But if you sign 5 of them, and even 1 turns into a big league regular, then that pays the bill. Its just money. The Phillies have money.
Step 5 – Rebuild the major league coaching staff
While I highlighted the importance of the player development department, we also need to focus on the major league coaching staff. This obviously starts with the manager, but finding the right hitting coach and pitching coach is just as important, if not more important, since the role of today’s major league manager is more about managing egos and personalities, and less about “teaching the game” on a day to day basis. When Andy McPhail hires a GM, his GM is going to want to hire his own manager. Cool. Just make sure you pick a manager that has some experience managing (major league level isn’t required, but you’d hope the manager has at least some managerial experience in the minors) and more importantly, is willing to implement the strategies and ideas that you, as an organization, are trying to instill throughout the franchise. In other words, don’t hire a manager still rooted in the 70s who isn’t willing to utilize the data and information you have developed.
If you look around the league, you consistently see certain teams producing gems and reclamation projects each season. Mickey Calloway, the Indians pitching coach, has resurrected the careers of Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber, and of course Don Cooper is widely considered one of the best pitching coaches in baseball. If you are the Phillies, a team with huge resources, financial and otherwise, you can afford to go and get these high level, elite coaches. These coaches may end up being more valuable than any free agent you could sign.
Step 6 – Rebuild the major league roster
So, this is the one you were probably most interested in, right? It is obviously very important. I’m not going to suggest which free agents the Phillies should sign this winter, who they should target in trades. Instead, I am going to look at the 25 man roster more philosophically.
* Cole Hamels – This is obviously the big item on everyone’s radar. Right now, if the Phillies cannot get a team to pay fair value for him, then they should keep him. The goal is to rebuild this franchise and do it quickly. Hamels is still young, hes still an elite pitcher, and hes signed to a very good contract both in the short term and long term. If you can turn this thing around and do it in 2 years, then Hamels will still be here and still be at the top (or near top) of his game and can be a part of the next run at success.
The starting rotation – Will be tough to fix overnight. Hamels obviously gives you an ace to start with. I’m going to pencil Aaron Nola in the rotation for 2016. He’ll be up in a few weeks, and I expect he won’t see the minor leagues again. If you look at the rest of the 40 man roster, you probably can’t realistically pencil in any of those guys and expect to get major league average performance. Adam Morgan, in his limited looks, appears capable of being a decent #5 starter. Chad Billingsley could possibly be a #5 starter if he can actually stay healthy, but I wouldn’t count on that. The rest of the options look like 6th starters/AAA guys. That means the Phillies should be in the market for 2 middle of the rotation starters. You can probably get those guys for 4 year deals in the 40-50m range. The Phillies can afford that.
The bullpen – As soon as our long nightmare ends (Papelbon is traded) Ken Giles will ascend to the closer’s role and should be good to go, as long as he can remain healthy. The rest of the bullpen is a shambles. Hiring a new pitching coach, a good pitching coach, may help to get more out of guys like De Fratus, Diekman, and others. A player like Severino Gonzalez might actually be valuable as a 6th/7th inning reliever, even though he won’t make it as a starter. Philosophically, the Phillies should be targeting power arms and hoping the new PD staff and ML coaching staff can smooth out some of the roughness and turn them into assets. While I have reservations about how teams use their bullpen, and while I would love to dream about a world in which the Phillies have a progressive front office and a progressive field staff, I expect the 5 starters/7 relievers model will remain the status quo. It is important to have a mix of guys who can come in and pick up a big strikeout, and the guy who can come in during the 5th inning and give you two solid innings. Some of those pieces might be here, some of them might be in other organizations.
The lineup – Again, I’m not going to get into specific players, but what the Phillies need to do, and what it seems like teams are still afraid to do, is utilize the platoon system, especially at the corners of the infield and outfield. Establishing a solid spine (catcher, second base, shortstop, and centerfield) is critical, and I think stability at those positions is where you have to start. Right now, the Phillies could have 2 of the 4 pieces needed, with JP Crawford (SS) and then Freddy Galvis (2B) for now. A cornerstone centerfielder and catcher should be on the Phillies shopping list this winter. Cameron Rupp looks like a solid backup C, at least while hes cheap, but finding a legit starting catcher should be a priority. If you do not have a potential difference maker at 1B, 3B, LF and RF, that is where you should utilize the platoon route. The Phillies do have a quality guy in Franco, and he should be playing every day until he shows you he isn’t suited to the role. I think he’s going to be a 600+ PA guy a year, so no need to platoon there. At 1B, until Ryan Howard goes, he should play against RHP and a suitable RH batter should be paired up with him. The Phillies don’t really have a LF or RF that warrants 600+ PAs right now. Find out what you have in Altherr, continue to give Dominic Brown PAs for the next 2 months. Cody Asche, Odubel Herrea and Ben Revere are not players you plan around. They are fill-ins until you find a better option.
Given that teams are keeping their superstars and not letting them get to free agency, finding good fits becomes tougher, and those players become more expensive. One way around this is to look for players who have flaws and then maximize what they do well to your advantage. Maybe you can find guys who struggle against same side pitching, but rake against opposite side guys. They’d be exposed playing full time, but in a timeshare, you are getting the best of what they do and minimizing their weaknesses. What this also does, beyond giving you the platoon advantage for the first few innings of the game, is it strengthens your bench. If you are facing a LHP to start a game and you use your righthanded bats to start, you have lefthanded bats on the bench that can be used later to pinch hit. While everyone is looking for the smallest of edges to get ahead, platooning seems like one of those obvious solutions that too few teams utilize. If you have a cornerstone player at 1B, 3B, LF or RF, you obviously don’t want to platoon them, but when you lack that type of player, you can still “build” that type of production with multiple players.
Its tough to go free agent shopping and pick up a Mike Trout or Bryce Harper in today’s game, because teams are locking these guys up earlier and it has thinned out the free agent pool. But elite guys are still available every winter if you are willing to spend. The Phillies, through their glory run, were willing to spend. They were willing to give out the richest contract ever to a reliever. They were willing to give Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee mammoth contracts, and give Ryan Howard a monster contract years before they had to. You can argue how smart any of those moves were, but the point is, the Phillies are not limited by their financial power. When the right guy becomes available, they can offer them a top of the scale contract.
If you do your homework, if you identify what you need and how to properly use it, you can reconstruct a major league roster fairly quickly. The Phillies will be shedding some of their huge bad awful contracts this winter. They have money. They will have the space to make something happen.
For most of my life, the Phillies were nothing more than a source of angst, frustration and yearly disappointment. I was born a year after the Phillies won their first World Series. During my childhood, I saw a lot of bad baseball. 1993 was a mirage in the desert of baseball despair. The 2007-2011 era was a gift. Truly a beautiful gift. But it does not have to be a mirage, an outlier in an otherwise bleak Philadelphia baseball existence. The Phillies are a big market team playing in a city that still loves baseball. 2012 was tough. 2013 was tougher. 2014 was really bad, and 2015 is surely going to be rock bottom. But that is okay. Rock bottom brings us the #1 draft pick. The most draft money to spend, the most international bonus pool money to spend, and the chance to quickly re-stock our minor league system. The Phillies have the financial muscle to do what they need to do. They have an opportunity here to gut the mold and rot out of the organization, build a strong foundation, and quickly turn things around. I mean, I’ve outlined the entire plan here, what else is left but to implement it? Again, Mr. McPhail, you are welcome.