Phillies take new philosophy into crucial draft

Phillies take new philosophy into crucial draft
June 1, 2014, 6:00 am
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Ruben Amaro Jr. and his staff hold the No. 7 pick in the MLB draft, which begins Thursday. (USA Today Images)

Phillies scouting director Marti Wolever was right the other day when he was asked about the magnitude of this year’s draft for the franchise.

“Every year is important,” he said.

Player procurement, be it through free-agent signings, international signings or, most importantly, the draft, is the lifeblood of an organization. Even a casual observer can tell that the Phillies franchise is in desperate need of a transfusion of talent. Just look at the trouble the big-league club has had putting together a productive outfield. Just look at the records of the low-level minor-league clubs and the overall lack of prospect depth in the system. Some new blood could be added in the coming weeks if upper management decides to sell off some productive veterans to fuel an overdue retooling/rebuilding effort.

For now, the most immediate way to bring some new talent into this organization is through the draft. It starts Thursday night and it’s crucial to the future of this club. As a result of last year’s tumble in the big-league standings, the Phillies have the seventh-overall pick. It is their highest pick since 2001, when they selected pitcher Gavin Floyd fourth overall.

More than a decade’s worth of strong big-league finishes and forfeited high-round picks (the cost of doing business on the free-agent market) dropped the Phillies in the draft’s pecking order for many years. After such uninspiring first-rounders as Larry Greene (39th overall in 2011), Anthony Hewitt (24th in 2008), Zach Collier (34th in 2008), Joe Savery (19th in 2007) and Greg Golson (21st in 2004), the Phillies can’t afford to be wrong with this year’s first-round pick.

The importance of this year’s first-round pick can be seen in the actions of general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. He has personally seen about a dozen potential first-round picks and dispatched several of his top front-office aides to do the same. Might that mean that Amaro has lost some faith in Wolever and his staff, who haven’t hit big on a first-rounder since Cole Hamels in 2002 (but appear to have a good one coming in 2013 first-rounder J.P. Crawford)? Possibly. The rumble around baseball is that Wolever, who was involved in a controversy that led to a former draft pick being suspended by the NCAA earlier this spring, is on the hot seat. Then again, whose seat is warmer than Amaro’s?

Changes could be coming to this organization.

One area that might already have changed is draft philosophy. For years, starting with Mike Arbuckle, the Phillies have liked to gamble on top athletes with the skills to become all-stars if the development process went right. Wolever is a subscriber to the philosophy, and it was always supported by Pat Gillick.

But with Greene, the power hitter with just six homers and 257 strikeouts in 711 at-bats in the low minors, injured and floundering; Hewitt headed for minor-league free agency at the end of the season; and Golson long gone, the Phillies are rethinking that philosophy. They appear to be looking for a more proven player that they can project making a contribution in the majors in the not-too-distant future.

“We certainly would like to have something to supplement, a guy that could get in here quickly and contribute to this club, considering the age of the club and where we’re at,” Wolever said. “That would certainly be something I hope to consider. But you have to weigh your options. If the option is a guy who you think has a chance to be a No. 1 starter in the rotation down the road, what do you want to do? I think at that point it’s a great discussion, and we’ll have to make a decision.”

The Phillies desperately need to improve their stock of outfielders. Brown, a 20th-round pick in 2006, made it to the majors and earned a spot on the All-Star team with a strong first half last year. He has mostly struggled since and is far from proven. Other than him, you have to go to Michael Bourn (fourth round in 2003) and Marlon Byrd (10th round in 1999) to find Phillies-drafted outfielders making regular contributions in the majors. And it’s not like the Phillies didn’t draft a few. Highly touted draft picks like Kyrell Hudson and D’Arby Myers fell by the wayside, and Michael Taylor was used as trade bait and has played mostly in the minors. Those are just a few of the names.

The evaluation and selection of outfielders might be different in this draft.

“We’ve drafted some high-ceiling guys,” Wolever said. “We’ve had trouble keeping them healthy for whatever reason. It’s a real long process, especially for the high school kids. It’s a long, tedious process and we need to do a better job with that.”

A better job where?

“Well, I think we need to try to single out maybe some more advanced hitters, per se, and try to focus on that versus maybe the high-ceiling, what-they-could-possibly-be player,” Wolever said. “Take a good look at what they are right now versus what they might be down the road.

“I think it has come to that all the way through baseball. You’re spending a lot of money, you’d like a little return on your money.”

The magnitude of the first round dictates that it gets a lot of attention, but the entire draft is important. Scott Rolen, Jimmy Rollins and Mike Schmidt were all second-round picks, Ryan Howard was a fifth-round pick, and Ryne Sandberg went from the 20th round to the Hall of Fame. In recent years, Wolever and his staff got pitcher Jarred Cosart in the 38th round and Jonathan Singleton in the eight round. Both went to Houston in the Hunter Pence trade.

There are dozens upon dozens of examples of later-round picks who became stars and fueled championship teams in the majors.

The Phillies desperately need to bring some of those into their franchise this week.

“This thing goes 40 rounds, and we try to bear down all the way through,” Wolever said.

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