CLEARWATER, Fla. — A large group of Phillies players filtered Thursday morning into the back of the Spectrum Field cafeteria to watched the news conference announcing Aaron Nola’s $45 million contract extension.
The players had done exactly the same thing just three days earlier, when they stood against the back wall to watch J.T. Realmuto button up a Phillies jersey for the first time.
The Phillies, in the span of a week, traded their top prospect for one of baseball’s premier catchers and locked up their homegrown ace pitcher with a long-term, club-friendly deal. The seven-day stretch — from the trade on Feb. 7 with Miami for Realmuto to Thursday’s Nola news conference — was the most pivotal week of general manager Matt Klentak’s tenure.
The week that reshaped the Phillies would not have been possible, Klentak noted, without Mike Stauffer, the area scout who signed Nola and discovered one of the prospects who helped the Phillies land Realmuto.
“Mike Stauffer,” Klentak said, “has a had a hell of a week.”
Marti Wolever, who was the Phillies’ amateur scouting director until 2014, hired Stauffer in 2001. His first day — Sept. 11, 2001 — ended with a canceled flight in Omaha, Neb., after the terrorist attacks caused all flights to be grounded. Stauffer’s flight would leave a week later and his work as the team’s new Southeast Area scout could begin.
“Just started running. They said go get ‘em,” Stauffer said.
Stauffer’s territory takes him each year to high school and college fields in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Florida panhandle. It is his job to sift through the hordes of promising players and determine whom the Phillies should set their sights on.
He saw Nola for the first time in 2013 as the pitcher entered his junior year at LSU. Nola, Stauffer wrote in his scouting report, “manipulated the baseball.”
He watched Nola pitch in front of 10,000 fans at home games on Friday nights and then traveled around the Southeastern Conference to see how Nola handled himself in tense environments on the road. That is when a scout can learn what a player is made of.
“It’s the poise. When do they really start to pitch? It’s usually after the first or second inning. You just pay attention,” Stauffer said. “He has a lot of moxie up there when he takes the mound. He’s a cool cat. A quiet competitor. But what he did was just be himself up there. He stayed focused. He threw strikes. He just attacked hitters, threw strikes, changed speeds, and he really finished. That’s what you’re looking for.”
Stauffer filed weekly reports to Philadelphia about Nola, whom he suggested they should consider with the seventh pick in 2014. The Phillies, intrigued by what Stauffer saw, sent executives to watch Nola pitch at LSU as they began to focus in on their selection.
“At the end of the day, Marti Wolever came through and said ‘He’s our guy,’ ” Stauffer said.
A year after signing Nola, Stauffer was walking through a high school tournament when he noticed a lefthanded pitcher.
“I remember a buddy of mine said once, ‘If he’s lefthanded, pay attention,’ ” Stauffer said. “So I just stopped and watched him throw an inning or two.”
The lefthander — Alabama teenager Will Stewart — had attracted a group of scouts with his fastball and change-up. Stauffer, not wanting to tip off his interest, backed off. The scout returned later just as Stewart allowed a home run.
This — just like seeing Nola pitch on the road — was the moment Stauffer wanted to see. How would the pitcher react? Stewart kept his composure and had the confidence to throw a change-up in a full count for a strikeout.
“That said a lot about that young man,” Stauffer said. “I stayed one more inning and there were some other scouts still there. So I said, ‘I’m going to my car and I’m going to leave.’ I went to my car, came back, and talked to the parents. I said, ‘I hope to see your son pitch again one day.’ ”
Stewart was headed to play at a junior college in Alabama, but Stauffer, through conversations with the pitcher and his family, learned that Stewart wanted to play in the pros. Stauffer pushed for the Phillies to take a chance on him and they drafted him in the 20th round in 2015.
Stewart, now 21, had a breakout season last year at low-A Lakewood, displaying the talent that grabbed Stauffer’s attention four years ago. His season — a 2.06 ERA in 20 starts — offered enough promise for Stewart to be the player the Phillies would send to Miami along with Sixto Sanchez to land Realmuto.
“That trade doesn't happen without Will Stewart,” Klentak said. “And that trade just doesn't happen without Mike Stauffer.”
Stauffer was invited by the Phillies to be at Nola’s news conference on Thursday in Clearwater. He wore a black suit and sat with Nola’s parents as the players filled the room.
The scout watched as Nola — the player he helped direct the Phillies to — called the moment “surreal.” One of Stauffer’s players scored a life-altering payday while another landed in a new organization as a coveted piece in a crucial trade.
Stauffer said Stewart has great character and “deserves nothing but the best.”
For the Phillies, it was a great week. And it started with a scout who did his job.
“I say, ‘I don’t work for a living. I chase kid’s dreams,’ ” Stauffer said. “When you get a good young man who’s chasing his dream and wants to play baseball, that’s part of it.”