No, the problem wasn't usually in the selections, it was in the sloth like way that they either dragged on contract talks, as with Cole Hamels and Gavin Floyd, or lost players altogether, as in J.D. Drew, Lance Niekro, Joe Saunders and last year's high risk, high ceiling duo of David Huff and Vance Worley. The story of Drew is well documented, whereas the stories of Niekro, Saunders, Huff and Worley are likely to be retold if and when they become the solid major leaguers that they promise to become.
One of the most telling philosophies of the baseball clubs with solid farm systems is in the way that they quickly sign their picks and get them started towards the big leagues. No other sport takes such sustained repetition, practice and experience as baseball, and only by playing in the minor leagues can this trio of events unfold successfully. Yet, for years, the Phils seemed to find a way to pinch every dime so many of the players either had an acrimonious opinion of the club by the time they signed, or in the worst case scenarios, they refused to sign at all.
Make little mistake, these decisions were not left to Arbuckle and Wolever, after all, their responsibility is to provide the team with the best amateur talent they can find. No, the problem was in the philosophy of former GM Ed Wade, who had moved through the ranks in the Phillie system by being a numbers financial guy and never could quite rid himself of that hat even when it came to the role of player personnel. The damage caused by this seeming indiscretion has been felt throughout the system this year, but if there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, this year's draft and sign success should breathe new fresh air into an organization that could use some clean air.
Admittedly, the jury is still out on how history will record new GM Pat Gillick's term as Phillie GM, but it seems clear that it was his decision, and his alone, that allocated the funds necessary to get what could be the best draft class since 1998 signed, sealed and delivered...and as quickly as possible. With the signing of Drabek, the son of former major league pitching star Doug Drabek, the Phils have signed no less than 31 of their top 33 picks, with only fifteenth round pick, Riley Cooper and twenty fifth round pick, pitcher Billy Mohl, still unsigned.
Even more impressive is the versatility and array of talent the team brought in, and much of it the high school variety kind, another difficult task under the Wade Watch. No less than three top of the line high school products forsook college scholarships to sign with the team, the aforementioned Drabek, as well as supplemental number one round shortstop Adrian Cardenas and outfielder D'Arby Myers. In fact, the signing of Myers took place so effortlessly that his name actually appeared in a Gulf Coast League box score before many Phillie phans even knew he had come on board!
While an amateur talent, no matter how skilled, is never a guaranteed success once he dons a professional baseball uniform, this current crop of players does seem to promise better days ahead for a Phillie minor league system that could use a huge dose of home grown talent. It has been almost a standing joke among minor league gurus that the Phils were always seemingly having to supply their system with "mercenary" minor league talent, guys who just drift from organization to organization in search of a job. These are rarely players who make it to the major leagues and certainly owe no allegiance to the organization or its youngsters.
These days may be about to end if Gillick has his way. In fact, a noticeable difference has already taken place at the rookie league level, where the team has two clubs, the Batavia MuckDogs and the Gulf Coast League Phillies. Historically, one team would do reasonably well while the other team would perform in an atrocious manner. Of course, this was due to the lack of talent at the lower levels, but this has not been the case this year as both clubs are off to strong starts, in large part due to the influx of talent from not only this year's draft, but in the improved quality of the athletes now being signed from Latin America.
Gillick has made another conscious decision and that is to de-emphasize the Australian market and re-enter the Latin market with renewed vigor and energy. Given the skills of such talented Latin scouts like Sal Artiaga, Wil Tejada and Sal Agostinelli, this method of operation should prove a wise one for future minor league clubs. Already, the flow of talent is beginning to surface in the likes of Carlos Ruiz, Eude Brito, Carlos Carrasco and Edgar Garcia. Expect more talent to step forward in the very near future.
Still, the amateur draft is the lifeblood of most organizations so let's take a look at some of the more gifted players recently signed and now preparing to make their way through the system and eventually to the green fields of Citizens Bank Park. Undoubtedly, Drabek is the gold piece of the draft, a player who on talent was a top five pick but slid to the Phils at number 18 due to some character issues. The team insists that they did their homework and felt comfortable that Drabek's issues were not only resolved, but unlikely to surface again.
It does seem as if Drabek has had anger problems in the past when things don't go well on the field, and it will be imperative that the Phils monitor this behavior accordingly. To be honest, this was one of the same problems that star hurler Brett Myers brought with him with he left the amateur ranks and the recent misadventures of Myers indicates that this is something the Phils must...and will monitor. If they do, they have now corralled a young hurler with top of the rotation skills and a bat to match.
Drabek could someday join hurlers Cole Hamels, Gavin Floyd, Ryan Madson, Scott Mathieson and Giovany Gonzalez in a rotation that would rank with the best in the National League. Yes, Phillie phans, Drabek is that good! He begins the journey of 1000 miles later this week in Florida in the Gulf Coast League. Expect him to get his feet wet to the tune of about 35-40 innings pitched and then make his way to the Phil's winter instructional league in Clearwater.
When Drabek makes it to Florida he will join a talented array of teammates, including shortstop Adrian Cardenas, the supplemental pick given to the Phils when they failed to resign ace reliever Billy Wagner. Cardenas is merely one of the best hitters to come out of the high school ranks in years and has already started his career in fine fashion. Although his average has so far hovered in the .240 range, he has displayed an excellent batting eye, consistent contact on a daily basis, and a strong understanding of the game. When all is said and done, he could be the best player signed from this cast of skilled youngsters. Adrian Cardenas...a name to remember for future Phillie lore.
Other top prospects in the Gulf Coast League include D'Arby Myers, a speedy centerfielder who has already stolen 6 bases in less than two weeks of action, Andrew Carpenter, a rangy right handed hurler from Long Beach State, high school outfielders T.J. Warren, Darrin McDonald and Dominic Brown and young hurlers like Jarrod Freeman, Ralph Roth and Mike Dubee, the son of Phillies pitching coach, Rich Dubee. They were recently joined by collegiate standout, Herman Demmink, a third baseman and catcher Alan Robbin.
Further advanced are the players who now form the Batavia MuckDog squad, a team comprised mainly of players from the college ranks or into their second season of professional baseball. This group is led by another shortstop, Jason Donald, an All-American from the University of Arizona. The signing of Donald is significant for several reasons, not the least of which was how quickly he came into the fold after being represented by normally acrimonious agent Scott Boras.
In fact, the ease in which Gillick got this signing done bodes well for future negotiations with Boras. It was well known that he had no professional respect for Ed Wade, but reports are that he has the utmost regard for Gillick, something that could well pay off for the Phils in the future. It has certainly helped that Donald was not only dealt with fairly, but has started off as well as any Phillie draft pick. His hitting has been solid [over .300] and he has slid almost effortlessly into the number two spot in the batting order with the MuckDogs. Donald could move quickly through the system as he may be the most advanced player signed by the Phils.
Three other players of note to keep an eye on are hurlers Dan Brauer and Ben Pfinsgraff as well as outfielder Jay Miller. All three are off to strong starts in the early going, with Brauer still unscored upon after two appearances, while Pfinsgraff already sports a 3-0 record. Miller is currently hitting over .400 and has displayed a strong understanding of the professional game in the early going.
Other players to watch include speedy leadoff hitter, Quentin Berry, infielders Charlie Yarbrough, Cody Montgomery and Zack Penprase, outfielders Gus Milner [12 RBI in only 7 games] and Jacob Dempsey and hurlers Andrew Cruse, Sam Walls, Garrett Hill, Will Savage and John Brownell. Catchers Mike Fuentes and Shawn McGill and infielder Mike Deveaux round out the signed draft picks to this point.
While this is probably the group that will comprise the 2006 Phillie draft, the team is still negotiating with a few other players in hopes that they can somehow convince them to forgo college for the lure of professional baseball. Certainly, the Phils have little hope of signing Cooper, drafted in the fifteenth round as he has committed to playing football at the University of Florida and seems to have a greater love for the gridiron than for the ball diamond.
The same can probably be said for young hurlers like Josh Thrailkill, Kyle Gibson and Bruce Billings, pitchers who would add to the depth of this draft immensely but were always considered "tough signs" due to college commitments. Not so Billy Mohl, a pitcher from Tulane University, taken in round twenty five by the club. The Phils originally announced that Mohl had signed, then rescinded that announcement without any explanation. Perhaps there were unknown injury issues or perhaps Mohl had a change of heart.
If the Phils should somehow convince young pitchers like Thrailkill, Gibson or Billings to sign, it will be considered a major coup, yet even if these three fine prospects continue with their present plans and attend college, the Gillick Era has already transformed what was always a period of uncertainty into one that flowed almost effortlessly.
It is now up to Drabek, Cardenas, Donald, Myers, Carpenter and all to prove they were worthy of the lofty standing in which they were drafted. The odds are that a few of them will become stars, a few of them will be workmanlike performers and a few of them will find the transition from amateur to professional an impossible task. Yet for the Philadelphia Phillies, a team in the depths of a summer of controversy and public relations nightmares, the draft was a reason to be proud, a reason for hope and finally a reason to show...some positive signs!
Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or email me at Philliestalk.com and I will respond.
CD from the Left Coast