Dave Dombrowski shared his outsider’s perspective of the Phillies when he accepted their offer in December to run baseball operations.
“The last handful of years you sort of scratch your head and say, ‘Gee, I wonder why they aren’t winning. What’s happening over there?’” he said.
It isn’t a singular malfunction, of course, that accounts for a nine-year playoff drought. But eight months of inspecting under the hood kept leading Dombrowski back to one thing: The Phillies aren’t developing enough major league players in their farm system.
The bill came due Tuesday. Dombrowski announced sweeping personnel changes, notably the removal of assistant general manager Bryan Minniti and minor league director Josh Bonifay from their positions. And it sure sounds like there’s more on the way.
“If we’re going to be the club we need to be, we need to be better at getting players over the hump and producing good players from within the system,” Dombrowski said Tuesday. “That’s mandatory.”
There were eight homegrown players on the Phillies’ opening-day roster. A ninth, lefty Ranger Suárez, started Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Rays. Somehow, though, five consecutive years of top-10 picks yielded only one member of the everyday lineup (Rhys Hoskins) and one starting pitcher (Aaron Nola).
Lately, the best and the brightest Phillies prospects have ascended to the big leagues and flamed out. It happened to Scott Kingery. And Adam Haseley. And Spencer Howard. And most recently, Alec Bohm.
“We haven’t really had that star come up when you draft high like some other organizations do,” Dombrowski said.
There has been no bigger critic of the Phillies’ player development than owner John Middleton, who last year called it “a hundred years” problem. Part of his charge to Dombrowski was to figure out a solution.
At first, Dombrowski questioned the institutional structure. Minniti, who was hired by former general manager Matt Klentak in 2016 and promoted in 2017, oversaw player development in addition to amateur and international scouting. Dombrowski thought that was a lot for one person to handle.
Then, as Dombrowski toured each minor league affiliate over the past few months, he realized the problem ran deeper than rearranging a few titles and sets of responsibilities. He said he “wasn’t satisfied” with other aspects of the operation, including the communication among staff and with players.
“For me, the best thing to do was to approach it from a fresh perspective,” Dombrowski said. “Get a fresh start.”
Dombrowski must do more than merely put new people in charge. He needs to define — and possibly redevelop — an organizational philosophy.
Theo Epstein established a credo with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs that helped lead to championships. “The Rays Way” has worked wonders for low-payroll Tampa Bay. In 2014, then-Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. drafted and distributed a manual detailing the organization’s priorities.
But seven years and two regimes later, what constitutes “The Phillies Way” anymore?
It isn’t clear, not even to Dombrowski.
“I think we don’t have enough people on the same page,” Dombrowski said. “I think it’s going to be imperative if we’re going to be as good as we could be that you buy into the way we do it or you just need to not be there.”
By virtue of age (65) and experience (33 years as a general manager or president of baseball operations), Dombrowski has an old-school reputation. But if he leans toward traditional coaching, he also believes in blending it with cutting-edge data and technology.
The Phillies have pivoted hard to the latter in recent years. After the 2018 season, they cut loose veteran minor league hitting coaches Andy Tracy, Frank Cacciatore, Sal Rende, and John Mizerock. They hired minor league hitting coordinator Jason Ochart and several other coaches with ties to Driveline Baseball, a data-driven laboratory in the Seattle area. They replaced longtime pitching coordinator Rafael Chaves before spring training this year with Travis Hergert, a Driveline devotee.
Dombrowski declined to say whether he believes the Phillies have swung too far in the direction of what he calls “contemporary information.” But if he thinks everyone isn’t on the same page, whatever that may be, it’s reasonable to conclude that there are mixed messages trickling down to players, too.
If players were hearing conflicting things from Minniti, Bonifay, the coordinators who reported to them, and the coaches, it doesn’t foster a productive environment for developing players, especially as they get closer to the big leagues and even once they arrive.
“Sometimes when you have different voices, who’s responsible for handling something that you might want approached or adjusted on somebody?” Dombrowski said. “And who’s the one directly responsible for that? You have other people involved.”
The Phillies’ struggle to produce homegrown players is partially a product of poor drafting. They whiffed on outfielder Cornelius Randolph with the 10th overall pick in 2015; outfielder Mickey Moniak, the No. 1 overall pick in 2016, is a .256/.303/.403 hitter in nearly 2,000 minor league plate appearances.
But they hired Brian Barber two years ago to head up the amateur scouting department, and Dombrowski was impressed with his work in preparing for this year’s draft.
Dombrowski has made it clear that changes in player development are central to rediscovering “The Phillies Way,” whatever that is these days.
“If you disagree,” he said, “and you talk to me about it and we discuss things, but then you say, ‘OK, I’m good. I got my peace in. We’re all in this moving forward.’ But if you can’t do that, then you really shouldn’t be here.”
Dombrowski seems committed to completing the purge. He hopes to begin interviewing what he called “traditional farm director” candidates next month.
“I think we can turn it around quickly,” he said. “Personally, I do. I do think we can turn it around very quickly.”