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This season represents the end of the beginning for the Phillies. Incremental improvements should finally start to show up in the product on the field. The cream of the prospect crop is rising, led by BP's no. 4 overall prospect, shortstop J.P. Crawford. They even picked up a few genuine major league-quality players in the offseason, bolstering the outfield with Michael Saunders and Howie Kendrick and the pitching staff with Pat Neshek, Clay Buchholz, and Joaquin Benoit. They aren’t at the point where they’re likely to seriously threaten the Nationals and Mets in the NL East, but the really bad days should be over now. There’s even enough here that you can squint and see the outlines of a Wild Card contender if absolutely everything breaks right, though probably not until 2018 or 2019.
The Phillies haven’t been any good for awhile now, and they haven’t tried to be any good for nearly as long. Call that “tanking” or “rebuilding” or whatever pleases your fancy; at the very least, the Phillies haven’t tanked nearly as obviously as their basketball counterparts did under Sam Hinkie. Yet at the same time, they’ve made few attempts to field a truly competitive roster over the last few years, slashing payroll roughly in half as a major-market team coming off a run of sustained success on and off the field, without reinvesting that money anywhere back into the team. Instead, they tore it all down, waiting for the Ryan Howard contract albatross to expire and dealing off their most valuable core pieces like Cole Hamels and Ken Giles. Was it all worth it? Amidst some bad draft luck, the magic 8-ball still reads “reply hazy, try again.”
After a decade of contention, the Phillies faded hard in 2013, falling to 73 wins and getting the seventh pick in 2014, just ahead of a glut of four 74-win teams. They popped Aaron Nola, which looks like a big success. They finished 73-89 again in 2014, but dropped to the 10th pick in the 2015 draft; six teams won between 70 and 73 games, and the Phillies drafted last of them. BP just ranked the seventh pick in that draft, Andrew Benintendi, as the third-best prospect in baseball, a spot ahead of Crawford, while the fifth (Kyle Tucker), sixth (Tyler Jay), and ninth (Ian Happ) picks all made the BP 101 and eighth pick Carson Fulmer was in strong consideration.
The Phillies at no. 10 took raw prep outfielder Cornelius Randolph, a fine talent himself, but many years away from contributing. Randolph fell to no. 9 in the Phillies' system after an injury-plagued year in Low-A Lakewood. The same bad draft order luck happened again to the Phillies for the forthcoming 2017 draft, where a 71-91 record only bought Philadelphia the eighth overall pick because six teams finished with 68 or 69 wins. In between, in 2016, the Phillies did bottom out enough to get the first overall pick after putting their fans through a 63-win season, but had the misfortune to get it in a draft without a true 1-1 talent.
They selected prep outfielder Mickey Moniak and the commensurate savings that ultimately mostly went to second rounder Kevin Gowdy, after failing to get one of the higher-end elite talents like Blake Rutherford to fall to the 42nd pick. Like Randolph, Moniak is certainly a fine prospect, and selecting a “worse” prospect at first overall to get a big savings is a gambit that paid off huge for Houston in 2012 with Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers. Asking Moniak to be Correa is a bit much, but he has reasonable enough potential to be a very good big-league center fielder with a near-elite hit tool, so this absolutely can work. But for the time being, BP ranked six other 2016 draftees ahead of Moniak in the top 101, and like Randolph he’s years away from making an MLB impact.
They may have also missed some value on the tear-down. Patience was former general manager Ruben Amaro’s greatest virtue in the Hamels negotiations, as he held out more than a year until the Rangers offered a strong enough package to unload the lefty. But other stars who could’ve potentially drawn a significant return had they been traded a little earlier—big names like Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, and Jonathan Papelbon—were held long enough into their decline phase to return minimal value.
That brings us to the big trades they did make. The Giles deal does not fit neatly into a box as a rebuilding trade—Amaro's replacement, Matt Klentak, dealt a major-league pitcher with only one-plus year of service time for a major-league pitcher less than two years younger, along with an exchange of prospects that favored Philadelphia but didn’t include any blue chippers (Mark Appel’s draft status notwithstanding). This wasn’t so much a rebuilding deal as the type of good young player-for-good young player challenge trade that one rarely sees because of the risk involved. Leveraging what might be the best hundred-inning run of Giles’ career into Vincent Velasquez, plus some other goodies, is a fine win for the Phillies, but it’s also the kind of deal you can make as a good team, a bad team, or any team.
The Hamels trade is territory so well-trod that I don’t know what else I have to add to it. Sleeper prospect Jerad Eickhoff turning into something like 85 or 90 percent of Hamels makes most of the rest of the trade gravy from the Phillies' perspective. If one of Jorge Alfaro, Nick Williams, or Jake Thompson joins Eickhoff as a solid long-term regular, the deal is a value win; if Alfaro or Williams hits anything close to their monumental upside, this could push the needle towards the next great Phillies team. But that next great Phillies team could very well need a Hamels-level top-of-the-rotation pitcher, maybe even in advance of Hamels’ deal in Texas. Those kinds of pitchers are really expensive, even as rentals, unless you can develop one yourself. The Phillies haven’t developed a pitcher like that since Hamels.
The place where the Phillies have succeeded the most in their talent accumulation is one that has no substantial connection to winning, losing, or even spending: low-budget international free agents. Without ever blowing past MLB’s international pool system, the Phillies have strung together a nice group of international success stories. Their fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-best prospects are all Dominican pitchers whom they signed for less than $100,000, and Maikel Franco, arguably their best homegrown MLB talent, signed out of the Dominican Republic for exactly $100,000.
Of course, these deals were mostly the success of the previous general manager’s front office and scouting department. Whether Klentak can continue Amaro’s trend of signing diamonds in the rough under the new rules that should make the July 2 market easier to navigate for the cheaper teams is yet to be seen, but he has kept most of the key members of Amaro’s international scouting team in place.
Even with the modest successes of rebuilding, the Phillies still have a quality crop of young players. It’s enough that with a potential recommitment to bring #MysteryTeam back that always has a finger in every major free agent and trade pot, the Phillies could very easily go back to being a real contender. Just not quite so overwhelming that it’s slammed the door on the initial Phillies’ decision to become a perennial rebuilder.
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