IT WAS NEVER going to be as easy as many people assumed. Back in 2014, when members of the Phillies front office first began to use the R-word in their public comments, the rose-colored version of the looming rebuild had 2017 arriving and the Phillies trotting out a lineup that featured J.P. Crawford and Roman Quinn at the top and Maikel Franco in the middle and, hey, remember Sebastian Valle?
There was a time when people argued that trading Cole Hamels was unnecessary because Jesse Biddle would be ready soon and, with Aaron Nola on the fast track to the majors, the Phillies could be back in contention while the lefty was still in his prime. Trade Ryan Howard, trade Jonathan Papelbon, bada boom, bada bing, 2017 here we come.
Needless to say, things have not unfolded according to that blueprint, and when the Phillies left town for Miami on Sunday after an 8-4 loss to the Reds concluded another dismal homestand, the rumbles of discontent from the fan base continued to swell.
The question that seems to be on a lot of people's minds: Shouldn't the Phillies be seeing more results at this stage of the process?
The honest answer: No. Any expectation that the Phillies in Year 2 of Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak's tenure should be anything other than one of the worst teams in the National League reflects a dramatic underappreciation of the depth of the hole from which they were hired to dig their way out.
With the Phillies in the midst of their fifth straight losing season, it is easy to look at other high-revenue teams like the Yankees and Red Sox and Cubs and wonder why they've been able to transition between eras without enduring such an extended stretch of failure. But doing so ignores the depths to which the Phillies' talent base plunged before the front office or ownership understood the problem that was confronting them. By the time the Phillies first began to acknowledge the need for a shift in its operational philosophy, it was more of an admission of the obvious than a bold shift in policy. They were about to enter a long rebuilding phase, whether or not they referred to it as such.
The reality of their current situation is that it is the result of a near-total organizational failure in which the front office exhibited a stunning disregard for the necessity of a coherent long-term strategy for maintaining a sustainable talent base. Much of this ground is well-trod, in particular the depletion of the minor league talent base from trades for Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence and the bestowing of monster contracts on the likes of Ryan Howard and Jonathan Papelbon. But just as detrimental was the Phillies' failure in the one area where they were supposed to have an advantage on their analytics-driven competitors: scouting and player development.
Since 2012, the only Phillies draft picks to appear in the majors are Andrew Knapp and Aaron Nola. Besides Nola, only one other first-round pick has suited up for the Phillies in the majors since they drafted Cole Hamels in 2002. That was Joe Savery, the 2007 first-rounder who eventually pitched in 41 games in relief over 2011-13. Besides Nola, the only Phillies first-rounder who has had a modicum of major league success during that stretch is Travis d'Arnaud, who has yet to log 400 plate appearances in a season for the Mets.
Compare that to the Red Sox, who over the last three years have gotten 4,177 plate appearances and a .294/.352/.471 batting line out of Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts and Bradley, all three of whom joined the Red Sox system from 2009-11. Part of that was a scouting failure, which is why longtime Phillies scouting director Marti Wolever was shown the door in September 2014, but it was also attributable to a lack of macro-level planning with regard to amateur inventory levels.
Consider this: From 2010-12, the Red Sox made 10 picks inside the top 40 of the draft. During that same time period, Phillies made three.
Top-40 draft picks, 2010-12
Matt Barnes, No. 19
Kolbrin Vitek, No. 20
Deven Marrero, No. 24
Blake Swihart, No. 26
Brian Johnson, No. 31
Bryce Brentz, No. 36
Henry Owens, No. 36
Pat Light, No. 37
Anthony Ranaudo, No. 39
Jackie Bradley, No. 40
Jesse Biddle, No. 27
Larry Greene, No. 39
Shane Watson, No. 40
No doubt, there are some micro-level scouting differences evident in those lists, most obvious among them the Phillies' drafting of Greene at No. 39 in 2011, one pick before the Red Sox drafted Bradley. But Boston had plenty of misses itself . . . in the quantity of its selections, though, it gave itself lots of margin for error.
Same goes for the international realm. The Red Sox signed Bogaerts way back in 2009, for a $410,000 bonus that was well beyond what the Phillies were spending at that time.
While the Red Sox might have appeared to be in a situation similar to the Phillies when they failed to reach 80 wins in three of four years from 2012-15 (albeit with a World Series title in the fourth), their talent base never came close to reaching the depths to which the Phillies' sank in the years leading up to Ruben Amaro Jr.'s ouster. If Franco or Crawford or Nick Williams or Jorge Alfaro fail to reach their potential, they'll be little different from Swihart or Marrero or Will Middlebrooks or Garin Cecchini or Brandon Workman.
The success rate among even blue-chip prospects is jarringly meager across baseball. Scouting matters, but so does volume, and the Phillies were always going to pay a stiff price for the liquidation their system endured under the previous regime.