CD's Connect the Dots... Safe at Home

Home. A place of comfort. Home. A place of safety and security. Home. A place where the heart is. Goethe once penned his description of home, "He is happiest, be he king or peasant, who finds peace in his home." For Philadelphia Phillies fans, home grown is increasingly becoming a staple of the major league roster for a team hoping to make "safe at home" their slogan during the final frantic two weeks of the baseball season.

It was exactly 30 years ago in 1973 that the Phillies farm system was the envy of teams throughout baseball. The Phils minor league system was a veritable cornucopia of outstanding prospects and the Latin American pipeline was one to be envied and copied. Names like Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Bob Boone, Larry Bowa, Larry Christenson and Dick Ruthven were just a few of the players who would form the core of the greatest era in Phillies history, an era that extended from 1974-‘83.

Sadly, this philosophy of building a team with homegrown products disappeared when Dallas Green was hired away to rebuild the Chicago Cubs. Not coincidentally, he took with him some of the greatest scouts ever associated with the Phils, names like the legendary Hugh Alexander.

Predictably the Phils farm system became a black hole for an organization headed on a downward spiral. This began to change when Lee Thomas was hired as General Manager. His first order of business was to rebuild the big league club and his 1993 Wild Bunch was a Thomas masterpiece. Then in early 1993 he hired a man who would have as much to do with the Phils current success as anyone in the organization, a former Atlanta Braves scout named Mike Arbuckle.

There is a baseball truism that "when you hire someone you are also hiring their Rolodex file," and Arbuckle's was full of top baseball talent evaluators. He soon brought in his current right hand man, Marti Wolever and together they set out to rebuild what was then an atrocious farm system. A cursory glance at the Phils current roster indicates the incredible success Arbuckle and Company had in rebuilding what was once almost morabund. Today no less than 15 home grown players grace the roster of a Phils team primed for an exciting final two weeks of the September playoff push.

Though often outshined by such free agent and trade acquisitions as Jim Thome, Kevin Millwood, Placido Polanco and Bobby Abreu, the homegrown list is an impressive "Who's Who of Phillie Stars". This list includes former #1 draft picks Mike Lieberthal, Pat Burrell, Brett Myers and Chase Utley as well as other high draft picks like Jimmy Rollins, Jason Michaels, Randy Wolf and Ryan Madson.

Arbuckle and Company also struck it rich with lower picks like Marlon Byrd, Nick Punto, Geoff Geary and Travis Chapman. Brandon Duckworth was a college free agent signee after a solid career at California State Fullerton. Even the Latin market has begun to bear fruit with reliever Carlos Silva and shortstop Anderson Machado.

The Phils philosophy under Arbuckle has always been to look for high ceiling, high-risk players with outstanding tools. A player like Marlon Byrd is a perfect example. A former Georgia high school star, he suffered a serious injury in college and his career was thought to be in peril. The Phils gambled a tenth round pick on him and he is now firmly established as the leadoff hitter with the club. Not only is he hitting .300 but his standout defense has now begun to evoke comparisons to Andruw Jones, the great fly chaser with the Braves.

Of course, Lieberthal, Burrell and Rollins have been regulars on the 2003 club since Day One, and Utley has become a solid player since answering the call in August when David Bell went down with an injury.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Arbuckle magic is his ability to draft and develop high ceiling young pitching. Wolf and Myers are both Arbuckle picks and the list of future Phillie gems makes one salivate with excitement. In fact, there are many in baseball that feel the Phils have the best minor league pitching prospects in all of baseball. Youngster Ryan Madson has yet to pitch but is on the September roster, and may soon contribute to the Phils playoff cause. He is but the latest in a long list of dazzling young hurlers that promises to make the Phils new home, Citizens Bank Park, one bank that opposing players will not wish to visit.

Mark down for future reference the names Taylor Buchholtz, Keith Bucktrot, Elizardo Ramirez, Rob Tejeda and Nick Bourgeois, as several of these pitchers will someday call Philadelphia home.

Of course, any avid follower of the Phils minor league system may have noticed that the two best pitching prospects were curiously missing from the list. As talented as the previously named pitchers are, their talent pales in comparison to the two crown jewels of the Phils system, right-hander Gavin Floyd and lefty phenom, Cole Hamels. It is a tribute to the skills of these two hurlers that most lists of the top five pitching prospects in ALL of baseball inevitably include Floyd and Hamels.

The pipeline may begin next year when Madson should wear Phillies pinstripes. He may soon be followed by Buchholtz and Bucktrot in late 2004, and the year 2005 may lead to the much anticipated debuts of Floyd and Hamels. Suffice it to say, that home grown will definitely be where the heart is when it comes to Phils' pitchers in the near future.

It would not surprise anyone if players like Michaels, Punto, Chapman and Machado become solid contributors either as starting position players or valuable reserves. Silva and Duckworth will both vie for a starting staff spot in the 2004 rotation while Geary will attempt to win the Phils closer role next year.

Needless to say, the contributions of Thome, Millwood, Plesac, Padilla and Polanco have been invaluable to the cause of this year's team. Yet without the steady and often spectacular contributions from the Phils' many homegrown products, the Phils would be once again facing a meaningless set of September games and a long winter. Instead, the Phils are feeling very secure and safe at home with a group of home grown talents that only promise to get better and better.

Wise are those who remember Goethe's very insightful words. "He is happiest", be he kings like Burrell, Rollins, Wolf or Byrd, or "present day peasants" like Hamels, Floyd and Buchholtz, "who find peace at home". For the Philadelphia Phillies, Citizens Bank Park promises to be a very peaceful and safe home, indeed.

Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send them to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond! CD


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