In the weeks and days leading up to the 2016 MLB draft, the Phillies were in the enviable position of being on the clock.
But their timing couldn’t have been worse.
Whereas most of the previous few years’ drafts featured at least one player who projected as a can’t-miss franchise cornerstone — Alex Bregman in 2015; Kris Bryant in 2013; Carlos Correa in 2012; Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer (Anthony Rendon, too) in 2011; Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in 2010 — the 2016 class lacked a marquee name. In trying to identify the best player in the pool, the only consensus was that there was none.
In four mock drafts for ESPN, Keith Law predicted the Phillies would take one player, then changed his pick. On the eve of the draft, he linked them to five players and wrote, “I wouldn’t be surprised if any of those guys is taken here.” Such variability is common later in the first round, but it’s unusual at the top.
Five years later — an appropriate incubation period to begin judging a draft, according to most scouts and front office personnel — it’s popular to conclude that the Phillies whiffed in selecting Mickey Moniak, an outfielder from La Costa Canyon High School in Carlsbad, Calif., near San Diego. Through Wednesday, Moniak was batting .251 average with 30 homers, and a .691 OPS in 1,718 career minor-league at-bats. He made his major-league debut last September and is 6-for-39 (.154) with one homer and a .513 OPS over two call-ups.
Moniak’s backers note that he turned 23 two months ago, missed a season’s worth of development in 2020 because of the pandemic, and didn’t play in triple A until this year. His detractors believe he has the ceiling of a major-league bench player.
But regardless of what you may think of Moniak, here’s the thing: Who should the Phillies have taken instead with their first No. 1 overall pick since Pat Burrell in 1998? What should they have done differently? And would it have mattered?
“Different draft years have different levels of talent, [and] ’16 was a pretty skim-milk year,” Phillies owner John Middleton famously said last October after announcing general manager Matt Klentak’s demotion. “There’s pretty much nobody who’s done anything with their No. 1 pick in that entire draft. If my memory’s right, I think the third-round picks have materially outperformed the first-round picks out of that draft.”
Indeed, if the 2016 class was to be redrafted now, few of the top picks would come out of the first round.
The second round produced two 2021 All-Stars (Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Bryan Reynolds and Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette) and the 2019 National League Rookie of the Year (New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso); the third round yielded solid starters Aaron Civale of the Cleveland Indians and Zac Gallen of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
And the biggest steals — Milwaukee Brewers strike-throwing machine Corbin Burnes and Cleveland Indians ace Shane Bieber, the American League Cy Young Award winner in 2020 — weren’t taken until the fourth round.
Every team passed on those players. Only Reynolds appeared in the first round of Law’s final mock draft. All have outperformed their draft-day projection.
Before the Phillies decided on Moniak, they took long looks at Mercer College outfielder Kyle Lewis and University of Florida pitcher A.J. Puk. Lewis put up big numbers but for a small college. How would that translate to pro ball? The Phillies pegged Puk as a future reliever and worried about the 6-foot-7 lefty’s susceptibility to injury. They were right. He had Tommy John elbow surgery in 2018 and shoulder surgery last year.
Nick Senzel, the No. 2 overall pick, has been a replacement-level utilityman for the Cincinnati Reds. Ian Anderson, the No. 3 pick, is a mainstay in the Atlanta Braves’ rotation, but the Phillies deemed a high-school right-hander (from the Northeast, no less) too risky for the top pick in the draft. They also looked at outfielders Corey Ray (No. 5 to the Brewers) and Blake Rutherford (No. 18 to the New York Yankees). Neither has made an impact.
Outfielder Alex Kirilloff, the 15th overall pick, has demonstrated potential for the Minnesota Twins, and the Los Angeles Dodgers did well to snag infielder Gavin Lux (20th overall) and catcher Will Smith (32nd overall). But none was in the conversation to be drafted first in the nation.
In hindsight, the Phillies may have been better off with Lewis, the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year for the Seattle Mariners. But there are questions associated with him, too. He has struck out in nearly 30% of his 464 major-league appearances and endured two major right knee injuries, including a torn meniscus this season.
Money also factored into the decision to go with Moniak. He signed for $6.1 million, nearly $3 million less than the slot value for the first overall pick, leaving the Phillies with more of their $13.4 million bonus pool to spend in the second and third rounds. And that was where they made their biggest miscalculation.
Knowing they could splurge on the first pick of the second round, they took high school right-hander Kevin Gowdy and offered him $3.5 million, the 11th-highest bonus in the draft, to dissuade him from keeping his commitment to UCLA. But injuries have kept Gowdy in A ball.
The Phillies tripled down on high school talent by drafting shortstop Cole Stobbe at the top of the third round and signing him for $1.1 million. He also hasn’t made it beyond the high-A level, prompting some in the organization to concede that they should have mixed in a college player among their top three picks.
Imagine how the Phillies’ 2016 draft would have looked if they made the second-round overpay to, say, Bichette, an Arizona State recruit out of high school, and snagged one of the college pitchers (Civale, Gallen, Burnes or Bieber) in the third round. They took a college pitcher in the fifth round, and, after fizzling with the Phillies, lefty Cole Irvin is having a nice season in Oakland.
At a minimum, it would have diverted some of the scrutiny from Moniak, who instead has become the face of a seemingly missed opportunity at a critical juncture of a rebuilding process that has not produced a playoff appearance.
“There’s a lot that comes with being the No. 1 pick,” Moniak said after getting called up last year. “At first I didn’t think it was going to affect me at all being an 18-year-old kid and getting into pro ball and never having to struggle in my life. Once those struggles hit, it kind of hit me. You had to take a step back.”
And realize the Phillies’ 2016 missteps went beyond their choice with the No. 1 pick.