Where Have You Gone, Mark Phillips?

Mark Phillips - strong, projectable and not to mention left handed with devastating stuff. So, sure, he is a top prospect, right? Wrong. What has happened to the Mark Phillips that was supposed to be Mark Langston or Randy Johnson? Maybe it is no wonder the Padres gave him up only at the expense of Rondell White. This was a guy who immediately became the Yankees top prospect when they acquired him before last season. The question is, what went wrong with Mark Phillips?

The New York Yankees really pulled off a beauty. They robbed the poor San Diego Padres blind in this one, that's for sure. Those were the thoughts of just about every person in the baseball industry at the time the Yankees made the deal that sent Rondell White to San Diego for Bubba Trammel and lefty phenom, Mark Phillips. Brian Cashman was hailed as a genius for constructing and sealing the deal. Phillips would immediately jump ahead of Juan Rivera as the Yankees top prospect. Perfect. The Bronx Bombers had a true impact, star pitcher on their hands. Or so they thought.

 

"The key component in this deal, for us, is Mark Phillips," General Manager Brian Cashman told The New York Times when the deal went down. "That's not to put any extra pressure on him, but adding an extra power arm to our system was important." Anonymous sources even said, "Someday this may be known as the Mark Phillips trade". Well, it just so happens that to this point, it has not. Rondell White has gone on to have some solid seasons since then. However, that is well besides the point. The deal had to be made. So, shouldn't we be hearing that Phillips has a top prospect glow? Well, that just hasn't happened. The tall lefty was drafted out of Hanover High School by the San Diego Padres in the 1st round (9th overall) of the 2000 Draft so just going by his high selection, you know what kind of potential he has. "He's blue-chip all the way. Mark has a tremendous fastball and curve." That is what his high school coach, Terry Conover had to say about his former player.

 

What was not to like about this flame throwing lefty out of high school? The answer is nothing. He was just about untouchable at Hanover High School. Phillips had an 8-2 record this past season with 132 strikeouts in 66 1/3 innings and a 0.74 ERA. For his high school career, he was 23-9 with 380 strikeouts in 210 1/3 innings and a 1.23 ERA. So, for the San Diego Padres, it was a no-brainer to select him 9th overall. From the other side of things though, was it a no-brainer for Phillips? Stuff and potential he had but was he ready mentally to be a professional athlete? Things seemed right for him to get some more polish in college. He was all set to go to the then College World Series championship Louisiana State University. However, when the Padres threw $2.2 million at him, college ball went right out the window. But, the education was something that the Phillips family did not want Mark to lose out on. Knowing that, the Padres agreed to pay $40,000 towards that education. They were that determined to sign him at the time. Still, the thing that some scouts suspected that he may need was college ball polish. That, he would never get.

 

"Wherever it is, California or Idaho or where ever, it doesn't matter," Phillips said, "I'm going to play pro baseball and hopefully I'll get to the major leagues." That was the only thing that mattered to Mark Phillips. "Other than hitting the lottery, you never expect something like this to happen to one of your children," Mark's mother said. Everything seemed right in the world of Mark Phillips and the San Diego Padres. He fulfilled his life long dream and the Padres got their man. Either way, he 18 year old lefty was on his way to Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League. "We think he should move quickly (through the organization),"  Padres General Manager, Kevin Towers told The Associated Press. It was so easy and yet so naive at the time to make such conclusions about an 18 year old pitcher with only high school experience. But, how could you blame Towers or anyone else in the organization. Phillips was a guy that had to be picked. "It will be a little different for Mark," Steve Phillips (Mark's father) said, "because he'll be playing against players who are equal to him or maybe better than him." This is something that would certainly come into play. In high school, you can have that electric stuff that Phillips did and still does have and get away with being a bit more wild. But as it turns out, he would soon find out how important his control would be.

 

Mark Phillips would struggle somewhat in his first professional season but it was not much of a concern because of the small sample size. However, what was a concern was that despite his strikeout statistics, he was averaging over 5 walks per nine innings. But, the next season, he appeared to bounce back. Despite being accused by the organization of coming into camp out of shape, Phillips had a dominating season in which he jumped two levels. He looked like he had made improvements in his control as he average just over 4 walks per nine innings that season. That is still slightly high but a huge step in the right direction. The highest level he reached was the California League where he averaged nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings with a 2.57 ERA. So, here he was. The Padres had really nailed this one. His control was improving and his strikeout numbers were even on the rise. Meanwhile, he was dominating every league he played in. It would only get better from there, right? Unfortunately, it would not.

 

As a result of his late 2001 season in the California League, the then 20 year old Phillips would return to Lake Elsinore. At this point, the top prospect aura was growing rapidly around the talented lefty and the expectations were sky high for 2002. However, his success would decrease in 2002 rather than just the opposite. His ERA rose to 4.19 while his walk totals rose to an alarming 5.70 per nine innings. Many prospects have setbacks in their career and many believed that Phillips could right his ship in 2003. Little did they know, it wouldn't be with the Padre organization. Whether it was a loss of faith in him by the organization, frustration with his work ethic or just advanced scouting that signaled to sell him off while his stock was still high, the then 21 year old lefty was shipped out to the Yankees for Rondell White. Obviously, the Yankees were ecstatic to get such a supposedly good prospect for a spare part. But, unknown to them, the wheels would completely come off for Phillips in his first season with the organization.

 

You can call it a nightmare because for Mark Phillips, that is exactly what it was. 2003 was, by far, Phillips worst pro season of his career. His ERA ballooned to 5.76 and his walks got out of control. He average over 6.5 walks per nine innings while his strikeout numbers went down also. He struck out 3 full batters less than the season prior. As already stated, the wheels came completely off. The nightmare was cut short though as he ended the season on the DL with a nagging leg injury. However, some speculated that his arm was not sound either. It is always concerning when a guy like Phillips who used to consistently hit 97 MPH, all of a sudden can't crack 90 MPH. Well, that was the case with him in 2003. Things got so bad that now, here in 2004, he has not pitched once in a game for the Tampa Yankees. Instead, he is spending the full season working vigorously on his mechanics and control. So, who knows when we will ever see this once incredibly promising lefty in a game again.

 

Everyone can only hope that the mystery that is Mark Phillips can be solved and he can go on to the career that many scouts thought he would one day enjoy. However, sadly, this seems unlikely as experts say "his prospect window is closing" and using terms to describe him such as "non-prospect". This is what it is like to see a great talent become another sad case of a great player that never was. Some irony in this is that out of high school, Phillips was ranked as a draft prospect behind another sad case, Matt Harrington. When Phillips was drafted, Padres GM, Kevin Towers thought Phillips had endless potential and he even compared him to the then, 20 year old Cardinal phenom, lefty, Rick Ankiel. What a beautiful comparison to have at the time. But, we all remember what happened to Ankiel. Ankiel has never been back to the big leagues since his collapse. If and when will Mark Phillips make it back to playing live pro baseball, period? Right now, he is invisible to the baseball world. This is speaking of a guy who once had eye opening talent. Where have you gone Mark Phillips?


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