Brian Barber was drafted out of high school with the 22nd overall pick in 1991. Ten years later, he had endured Tommy John elbow surgery, bone spurs in the same elbow, and other injuries to his right arm that limited him to a total of 93 innings in the major leagues.
"You look yourself in the mirror," Barber said in a half-hour conversation this week, "and it's like, 'OK, this isn't going to work out as I hoped it was going to.'"
At age 28, Barber’s once-promising pitching career was over. But in thinking about what he would do next, he leaned less on anything he learned while throwing a bullpen session or standing on a mound in front of 30,000 fans and more on casual conversations with the bird-dogs who sit behind home plate with radar guns, stopwatches, and notepads.
Scouting, it turns out, became Barber’s calling. And Wednesday, eight months after the Phillies hired him to the critical position of director of amateur scouting, he will run his first draft -- albeit one unlike any in baseball history -- from a socially distanced room at Citizens Bank Park.
“I just seemed to gravitate more towards the evaluating and scouting part than I did the coaching part,” said Barber, who rose from mid-Atlantic scout to national crosschecker in 18 years with the New York Yankees. “As a pitcher, [between starts] you’re up in the stands doing different things during the game in the minor leagues. You’re doing the radar gun, you’re operating a camera, you’re charting pitches. But you’re sitting right there with the scouts, so you start talking to those guys. You get an idea of what they do, and that was where my initial interest came from.”
Barber, 47, took over the Phillies’ amateur scouting department from Johnny Almaraz, who stepped aside for personal reasons in September. Almaraz, who remains with the team as a special assistant, believes hitters are generally safer bets than pitchers, especially in the high-school ranks.
Not coincidentally, the Phillies’ five first-round picks under Almaraz’s leadership were hitters, the last three -- outfielder Adam Haseley in 2017, third baseman Alec Bohm in 2018, and shortstop Bryson Stott last year -- coming out of college.
If Barber has a scouting ideology, he says it’s to not be defined by an ideology, even if his own injury-filled history as a St. Louis Cardinals prospect fresh out of Dr. Phillips High in Orlando, Fla., (he was touted as highly as teammate Johnny Damon) would convert some talent evaluators to Almaraz’s way of thinking.
During Barber’s years with the Yankees, most of which were spent working under scouting director Damon Oppenheimer, the club made 24 first- or supplemental-round picks. Eight were high-school hitters and eight were college pitchers; five were high-school pitchers, including Gerrit Cole, who didn’t sign and went to UCLA; three were college hitters.
“Brian’s probably the most impressive guy I met in the game since I joined the Yankees, which is now almost nine years ago,” said former Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, a Yankees special assistant. “From Day 1, he came off as a guy that I thought immediately, he should be a scouting director someday. This guy became one of my favorite people in the industry. The respect I have, he earned all of it.”
Hendry and Barber worked together on one of Barber’s biggest scouting successes.
Seven years ago, some talent evaluators were wary of taking a chance on a defensive lineman-sized outfielder from Fresno State because they had seen few similarly gigantic baseball players. But after following the young slugger’s college career and getting to know him, Barber assured Oppenheimer that Aaron Judge’s size wouldn’t inhibit his ability to repeat his swing or hit major-league pitching.
The point, Hendry says, is that Barber tends to approach talent evaluation and formulating draft strategy with an open mind, and expects the same from fellow scouts.
“In the eight drafts I spent in the draft room with him and in numerous other meetings, he never, ever would not give his opinion in an up-front and collective way,” Hendry said. “But never once would he ever be critical of other [evaluators] for their opinion. He’s very receptive to other people’s ideas.
“But when Damon needed some real advice or had to lean on one guy in the room on their opinion of a player, I would say Brian Barber had the strongest vote.”
Hendry said as much last year when he recommended Barber to his former Cubs boss, Phillies president Andy MacPhail. He noted Barber’s “unique package” of experiences as a first-round pick with the so-called tools to have become a staple in a major-league rotation had he stayed healthy before learning to identify those skills in others. Hendry described Barber as the “right-hand guy” to Oppenheimer, one of the longest-tenured scouting directors in baseball, and Barber unsurprisingly lists Oppenheimer among his biggest influences.
But neither Oppenheimer nor any scouting director has experienced a draft like this year’s. For one thing, it will be only five rounds rather than the usual 40, part of Major League Baseball’s cost-cutting during the coronavirus pandemic. For another, college seasons were suspended in March and high school seasons scrapped entirely, leaving scouts without games to attend.
If anything, it will test Barber’s collaborative qualities. Not only will he be relying on game reports that Phillies scouts filed even before he was hired, but he will be listening to their recommendations about some players they have discussed only after watching video.
The Yankees never picked higher than 16th overall during Barber’s tenure; the Phillies have the 15th pick Wednesday night. And with only four picks (they lost their second-rounder when they signed free-agent pitcher Zack Wheeler), they will need a few big hits.