Oh, make no mistake, I was once a true believer. I considered Mike Arbuckle and Company to be among the sharpest men in baseball and I trusted their evaluation, scouting and signing methods without question. As Arbuckle's name was mentioned on several occasions in connection with major league GM openings, I openly campaigned for his elevation to the Phillie GM position. In fact, I long considered him to be the most valuable member of the Phillie organization.
Not only did Arbuckle seem to command almost universal respect among his peers in baseball, but his Rolodex file of hired hands was seemingly second to none. He put in play what appeared to be one of the best group of scouts and coaches in the business, from Sal Artiaga in the Latin market to Gordon Lackey at the major league level. Better yet, Arbuckle seemed to not only have an eye for talent, but appeared fully capable of implementing a system that reminded many observers of his former employers, the Atlanta Braves.
Make no mistake, the Braves are an incredibly well run franchise, from top to bottom and the phrase, "Don't Beat the Braves, Be the Braves!" seemed a reasonable goal. Early Arbuckle successes, like the drafting and signing of such talent as Scott Rolen, Jimmy Rollins, Randy Wolf, Pat Burrell and Brett Myers only added to his growing resume of successes.
To be sure, there were the occasional glitches. In hindsight, the drafting of J.D. Drew in 1997 instead of a more signable player like Lance Berkman or Troy Glaus appears misguided, and the inflexibility that lead to the loss of draft picks like Jason Cooper and Lance Niekro were downsides on the ledger. Still, the system appeared vibrant and healthy and when players like Marlon Byrd, Gavin Floyd, Chase Utley and Cole Hamels had strong minor league career starts, Arbuckle and his crew were the talk of the town.
Now, the same system that Arbuckle has so carefully constructed appears in tatters, and it may take years to fix the mess. To be sure, his number one ally, current Phillie GM, Ed Wade is as much to blame for this mess with his continual need to trade top notch minor league talent for broken down relief pitchers that have contributed almost nothing but misery for Phillie phaithful over the past few years. The names have been mentioned before but deserve repeating.
Elizardo Ramirez, Alfredo Simon, Javon Moran, Anderson Machado, Carlos Silva, Nick Punto, Johnny Estrada, Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio are but a sampling of the players that have netted us such forgettables as Turk Wendell, Dennis Cook, Todd Jones, Felix Rodriguez and Mike Timlin. Admittedly, acquisitions of Billy Wagner, Eric Milton and Kevin Millwood seemed senseable at the time but even those moves can now be questioned.
Millwood and Milton left without even a draft pick in compensation, and both had some bad things to say about the team on their way out of town. Wagner is still productive but it is doubtful that the Phils will invite him back at 9 million dollars a season and when he leaves, the Phils will have nothing left for their ill-fated trades of the above named prospects.
In fact, Wade and Arbuckle seem almost tied at the hip philosophically and it appears that the organization they leave behind when they are mercifully jettisoned out of Philadelphia may take years to fix. Not only does this organization seem in trouble at the major league level, with an aging team that is running out of excuses for their failures, but the minor league system is a complete mess.
As this article is being written, our combined minor league record for the four full season clubs is a combined 18-41! Yes, that is no misprint... we are losing games, and players at a very alarming rate. Worse yet, most of the more highly rated prospects in the organization are either floundering, failing, injured or leaving. In fact, a case could be made that outside of Ryan Howard, Tim Moss and Brad Harman, there is absolutely NO top notch Phillie prospect who is performing up to his potential, and many are struggling at a terrible pace.
Even the success stories come with an asterik. We have been told on far too many occasions that Howard has no future in the organization because as a first baseman, he is blocked by Jim Thome in Philly. It appears to matter not that Thome is struggling mightily at an age when players have been known to go downhill rapidly. The Phils seem determined to let Howard, a potential 30-40 home run hitter at the big league level, go in a trade, probably for Wade's favorite bait, an old middle inning relief pitcher.
This overlooks the fact that Howard seems capable of doing whatever the team asks him to do offensively. Last year he was told to hit for power and his 47 home runs seemed to answer that request. This year, he has been told to cut down on his strikeouts and his current .391 average in Triple A seems to be a resounding YES to that request.
Still the team undervalues Howard, almost as if they hope he fails. The attempt to try him in the outfield seemed almost half-hearted on their part, and it would be no surprise if Howard felt that this mission was not truly done in good faith but rather to satisfied the supposedly uninformed public like you and I. In fact, the Phillie organization, from Wade to Dallas Green to Arbuckle has almost always seemed to have a disdain for the the very fans they hope to win over. Their public comments have always seemed to indicate that a fan certainly could not be trusted to make well-informed professional decisions and that should be left to the experts. In this case, Wade, Green, Arbuckle and Company.
Fair enough. With rank comes responsibilty, and it has been their responsibility to make the Philadelphia Phillies at least an organization that seems capable of competing for a division title occasionally. Instead, the system appears ripe for a free fall that may even surprise the most critical of the growing masses of disaffected Phillie phandom.
Of course, any charge this serious certainly commands evidence and in this case, it is very easy to find. Not only is the 18-41 record the absolute WORST in baseball, but very few players are improving and seem to be regressing in their skill level. Chris Roberson is struggling at .241 and Michael Bourn is a very un-Bourn like .235. Shortstop Danny Gonzalez, a highly rated fourth round pick out of high school does not even look like the same bouncy athlete that so excited minor league fans upon his arrival.
Pitchers like Scott Mathieson, Kyle Kendrick, and Andy Baldwin have yet to win a game, and youngsters, Keith Bucktrot, Scott Mitchinson and Cole Hamels have yet to even throw a pitch. Top rated hitters like Juan Richardson, Jake Blalock, Kiel Fisher and Terry Jones are struggling mightily, and Richardson must be completely discouraged with yet another year at Double A Reading.
Not only are most of the top players stumbling, but attitude issues continue to dominate Phillie minor league tabloids. The Cole Hamels story may never be fully told, and it appears that he has serious issues when it comes to the committment necessary to succeed at the big league level. Even worse than that is the news that 21 year old shortstop, Carlos Rodriguez [aka C-Rod], who cost the Phils a cool $700,000 to sign a few years ago, abruptly retired this week after yet another discipline problem that might have led to a suspension.
These issues reflect squarely on the shoulders of Mike Arbuckle and his trusted minnions. They are the architects of this unfinished painting, and if things continue as they are, the Phils will soon be the laughing stock of minor league baseball. Yet, the question remains as to why this has happened and how can it be fixed? The first part is much easier to answer than the second.
Simply put, Mike Arbuckle and his Phillie philosophy is clearly married to a time long past when scouts could depend solely on their eyes, ears and stop watches to determine the ability of a prospect. This was a system that worked for years and was trusted and true. However, with the advent of the computer and instant information, things have changed. Solid organizations now combine scouting and statistics to form their judgements and it appears as if this is the proper way to go.
We can look no further than successful franchises like the Dodgers, Red Sox, Braves and Oakland A's to see organizations who have bought into this Billy Beane philosophy with outstanding results. Yet, rather than acknowledge that there may be more than one way to succeed, Arbuckle and Company have almost snubbed their noses at this new way of doing business, and the results are beginning to show.
No longer can a player just be judged on his skills, abilities and batting average. Computers have shown that on base percentage is a better barometer of a player's potential that mere batting average, and new numbers have shown that a pitcher must now have more than a 93 MPH fastball to succeed. Perhaps if Arbuckle had paid closer attention to these details, we might not have seen the troubles that Hamels and Rodriguez brought to the organization.
Perhaps greater attention to detail might have convinced Wade and his trusted hired hands that building through a strong farm system is still the best way to go, and that there are no shortcuts to success. Perhaps. Yet it seems more likely that Wade, Green and Arbuckle are merely members of a group of fast fading employees of a by gone era, an era that is unlikely to ever be repeated. Knowing this, it is time for a change, no, better it is time for an overhaul before it is too late.
If Managing General Partner Dave Montgomery does not want to see his attendance numbers continue to dwindle at a most alarming pace, he will do the wise thing. He will quickly say, "Out with the old, and in with the new!" Gone will be the Wades, Amaros, Greens and Arbuckles who seem much too enamoured with 1980 instead of 2005. Gone will be the philosophy that "The Phillies Way" is the right way, and a careful reevaluation of successful franchises will take place.
In will be such enlightened minds as talented unemployed GM Gerry Hunsiker, a Philadelphia native and architect of the strong Houston organization. Once Hunsiker arrives, allow him to bring in his Rolodex file of trusted employees, a group from Houston that showed that it was not necessary to have a 93 million dollar budget to succeed.
Give Hunsiker that power to reshape the franchise before it's too late! We have already lost Buchholz, Astacio and Ramirez. We just lost Rodriguez and are in danger of losing Howard. We seem incapable of finding the key that unlocks the hidden talents of Hamels and even at the major league level there are disturbing trends.
One can merely mince at what has happened to Marlon Byrd and what seems now to be happening to Chase Utley and Gavin Floyd. One must question why so many seemingly talented youngsters appear to have to jump through proverbial hoops to get playing time or proper instruction. One must admit for the first time that the Wade and Arbuckle Era is a failed era and the sooner we lay it to rest, the better.
As a long and strong advocate of Wade and Arbuckle, these words are painful to write. I supported these two through thick and thin and I beleived they had the same vision as I did. I now know this is untrue. I no longer am optimistic about the futures of Greg Golson, Jason Jaramillo and Sean Gamble. I no long dream of a middle of the order power lineup that features Howard, Blalock and Richardson.
Instead, I see a troubled franchise in need of repair. Major repair. The time is short. The time is now. It is now time for a change.
Columnist's Note: Please send all comments and questions to email@example.com and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast