When Brian Barber was hired eight months ago to be the Phillies’ amateur scouting director, he envisioned leading a draft room filled with 40 or 50 fellow scouts and baseball-operations staffers, all of whom would shake hands and high-five and maybe even hug it out after announcing the team’s first-round pick.
Instead, he will be sitting at an acceptable social distance from two or three other people in a conference room at Citizens Bank Park.
So much for draft night normalcy. But then that notion went out the window in March, when college seasons were suspended and high school seasons got canceled altogether.
Scouts who spend hundreds of nights on the road were confined to at-home Zoom chats, and Major League Baseball set up an online portal for more than 1,000 amateur players to upload what amounts to a video resume of why they should be among the 160 players selected in a draft that was cut from 40 rounds to five.
“I’ve had things thrown at me from hundreds of guys: ‘I can’t imagine going through my first draft as a scouting director with what we’re going through,’” said Barber, hired away from the New York Yankees. “My response to everybody has been, ‘Nobody’s been through anything like this.’ I don’t care how long you’ve been a scouting director. You weren’t prepared for this eventuality.”
The Phillies have the 15th pick in the first round Wednesday night, the seventh consecutive year that they have drafted in the top 20. The only other time they had the 15th pick, they landed Chase Utley in 2000.
As a consequence of signing free-agent pitcher Zack Wheeler last winter, the Phillies forfeited their second-round pick. They will have a pick in the third (87th overall), fourth, and fifth rounds Thursday night, then call it a draft and focus on free-agent amateurs who would otherwise have been drafted but now can be signed by the highest bidder for a maximum of $20,000 apiece.
The Phillies have not selected a pitcher in the first round since 2014, when they plucked Aaron Nola with the seventh overall pick. That streak might end this year, with Barber noting that the draft is rich in college pitching.
In Baseball America’s latest mock draft, 10 college pitchers were listed among the first 30 picks. The Phillies have been linked to players at multiple positions, from high school catcher/third baseman Tyler Soderstrom and Oklahoma right-hander Cade Cavalli to right-hander Nick Bitsko, the Central Bucks East pitcher who moved up his draft eligibility by a year.
"If you had to nail one strength of [this draft], it would probably lend itself to that college pitcher mix," Barber said. "There are a lot of college arms out there this year that people are going to like."
Barber said the Phillies are weighing a group of 10 to 12 players who might be available at No. 15. One of many drawbacks of not being able to attend games is not being able to gauge rival teams’ interest in certain players.
“Picking at 15, you try to come up with who you think is going to get there, who’s going to be gone for sure. And it’s really tough this year,” Barber said. “I don’t know if teams in front are trying to look at different players, or what. I have some comfort in about eight or nine guys, for sure, that won’t be there, and after that, it’s a group of about 10 to 12 that have a 50-50 chance.”
The mechanics of scouting have changed, too. Although the Phillies are relying on reports filed by scouts after in-person looks last summer and fall, they have access to more video than before. They’re also able to conduct Zoom interviews in which scouts and other team officials can get to know prospects better and develop a sense of how they think about the game.
“One of the silver linings has been the ability, albeit remotely, to meet more kids than we ever have before, dive deeper into makeup and what makes them tick,” Barber said. “We’re missing some of the components with what we are really trying to do, but we’ve been able to dive deeper into other things to try to fill holes.”
In preparing for only five rounds, the Phillies have homed in on about 200 players rather than casting a net for more than 1,000. But they’ve also been plotting post-draft moves. By Barber’s estimate, they have conducted more than 100 Zoom calls over the last few weeks and about 200 in the last two months.
But how much money will they allocate for post-draft signings, especially given baseball’s uncertain economics in a pandemic-shortened season? The Phillies have a $5,444,200 bonus pool for their four draft picks, including $3,885,800 for the 15th overall selection.
“Unfortunately there’s going to be a lot of good players that don’t have the opportunity to be selected in the draft,” Barber said. “We’ve done a lot of work and a lot of due diligence on some of these potential post-draft signings. But I think we’re all still waiting to figure out exactly how that happens.”
It’s all part of a draft year unlike any other.
“The unfortunate situation is that our scouts who have worked really hard through this process don’t get to join us [in the draft room]. You have to do it on Zoom,” Barber said. “We’ve gotten used to that and we’ll work through it, but it’s not the same as having everybody here.”