PHILADELPHIA — The Phillies need to know what the Dodgers know. Or, rather, they need to know how they know it. They need to know how they decided to pick Will Smith after every other team had passed on him in the first round in 2016. They need to know how they landed on Walker Buehler the year before. They need to know why they thought Max Muncy was a viable flier, and how they decided Mookie Betts was worth the money and the prospects.
They need to know what the Rays know. They need to know how a team can go to the World Series with a meager payroll and just five of its own draft picks on its roster. They need to know why they targeted Tyler Glasnow and Willy Adames in trades.
The Phillies need to know how good organizations operate. The Dodgers and Rays are two of the best in baseball. They also were the last two teams playing baseball in 2020.
This shouldn’t be complicated. When the Dodgers needed an executive who could reshape the organization into one that was capable of sustaining success in the modern era, they hired the best executive they could find. After they lured Andrew Friedman away from the Rays with a big check and the title of president, Friedman surrounded himself with executives who had shared space with Theo Epstein during their formative years. Three years earlier, the Cubs had given the former Red Sox GM the title and the check and the free rein to reshape their franchise. Friedman also poached Farhan Zaidi from Billy Beane’s A’s. Four years later, the Giants poached Zaidi from Friedman. They gave him the title. And the check. And the free rein.
This shouldn’t be complicated. Whether it is Rays GM Erik Neander or Cubs GM Jed Hoyer or Dodgers executive vice president of baseball operations Josh Byrnes, the Phillies should be leveraging their checkbook and their soon-to-be-vacant president’s title to hire a heavy hitter from one of the sport’s preeminent lineages who can recreate what he has seen Friedman and Epstein do at their previous stops.
Chances are the Phillies will complicate this. Ironically, they’ll do it by convincing themselves that success is much simpler than it seems. Five years ago, their hiring process felt like the product of a Rosetta Stone crash course in analytics. Whenever Andy MacPhail spoke publicly, it felt like he was reading off a cheat sheet of buzzwords. Data as a second language. Honest, guys, we like math!
See, the Phillies had long been pilloried by baseball’s increasingly influential wonk community for being one of the last soldiers in the Pacific Theater, Clint Eastwood sitting in the stands judging players by the tingle he feels when he looks into their eyes. They were one of those scouting organizations, the reputation went, and they didn’t have no need for none of them fancy number things. Truth is, they weren’t really good at scouting, either. The problem wasn’t math. It was management. The Phillies were simply poorly run, with a command structure and culture that all but ensured that decisions would be made in isolation and that the long-run probabilities would always be out of their favor.
Their solution was the sort of thing that only a poorly run organization could devise. They hired an old guy who had the reputation as a “baseball guy” and a young guy who had an Ivy League degree. Then, four years later, they spent a bunch of money and were disappointed when it didn’t work.
The concerning thing, at least from a Phillies fan’s perspective, is that you can almost feel the pendulum swinging back. When managing partner John Middleton met the media in the wake of firing Matt Klentak as general manager, he barely waited to be prompted before delivering the message he wanted to impress. The Phillies’ failure, he said, was one of talent evaluation.
“I think the problem the Phillies have had for a hundred years is they don’t evaluate talent well,” Middleton said. “I think it was the problem a hundred years ago. It was the problem 50 years ago. There have been two periods in the Phillies history where we had bursts — kind of the late-’60s, early-’70s — where we had a bunch of good evaluations that resulted in good drafts, and we had a burst in the late-’90s into the early-2000s that resulted in two World Series teams. Other than that, we’ve been hit-and-miss.”
He isn’t incorrect. But building a competent baseball organization is as much about the valuation of talent as it is the evaluation. It is about putting in place sound decision-makers with sound decision-making processes who understand value well enough to end up well in the black over a long enough period of time. Analytics is part of that, as is scouting, as is the pursuit of any form of intelligence that can inform decision-making.
The Phillies’ struggles aren’t due to the draft. The draft is hit-or-miss by nature. The current Rays roster only has five players whom the team itself drafted. Five. The two stars among that group — center fielder Kevin Kiermaier and starting pitcher Blake Snell — were drafted nearly a decade ago.
Epstein has drafted exactly three bona fide regulars during his time with the Cubs. Aside from Kris Bryant and his 24.1 Wins Above Replacement, Ian Happ (4.4) and Kyle Schwarber (5.1) are the only two Epstein draft picks with more than a 4 career WAR.
The draft isn’t the place where the Cubs and the Rays of the world differentiate themselves. It’s in their relentless pursuit of market value, in whatever market that happens to be. It’s trading Andrew Cashner for Anthony Rizzo, and Ryan Dempster for Kyle Hendricks, and Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman for Jake Arrieta. Friedman’s drafts were rather unimpressive during his time in Tampa Bay. He’s hit on a number of picks in L.A., but Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Clayton Kershaw, Joc Pederson, and Julio Urias all were selected before he arrived.
Epstein and Friedman are the best in the game because of the totality of what they’ve built, and the variety of situations in which they’ve done the building. Amateur scouting, player development, the trade market, the international market, free agency. The Phillies need someone who is both a builder and a synthesizer. They need someone who knows what a marquee baseball ops department looks like. They need to poach from the best. If you can’t be ’em, give ’em a title and a check.
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer