Tuesday, June 10, 2014

What the Phillies? The Scoop on this Year's Draft

7th overall pick of the Philadelphia Phillies, Aaron Nola

Last Thursday the 2014 First-Year Player Draft started with two rounds that night followed by 3-10 on Friday, concluding with rounds 11-40 on Saturday. The MLB draft differs from the NFL and NBA and to an extent the NHL in the sense that the majority of first round picks don't stroll on to the stage for everyone watching to see their excitement filled faces. For most, not seeing the face of the draft pick that their team is getting puts a damper on the casual fan's desire to view the draft.  On top of that is the fact in most cases baseball players aren't bursting on to the scene immediately after they are drafted like in the NFL and NBA.  NHL prospects sometimes take longer to reach the big club too, but not as long as most MLB prospects. 

What this means for the casual fan is that they may hear who the club drafts one year, and never see that player again for another 3 years and maybe never.  There are rare players who take very little time to develop and reach the big leagues, i.e. Mike Trout.  While the MLB draft doesn't do a fantastic job at drawing in the casual fan like an NFL, prospect nerds, fans of teams looking to the future, or the dreaded combination of the two like myself find the baseball draft just as enjoyable.  It is a time to get excited about the future and dream on some of the names from the draft about being big league players one day.  As a fan of the second to last place Phillies, and one who enjoys studying prospects, I had never been more excited for the draft this year, especially with the 7th overall pick.

A lot of discussion has taken place about this year's draft class being un-Phillies like with a drastic change in draft philosophy.  I'm here to tell you that while yes there was a change in philosophy it might not be the only reason responsible for the Phillies focusing so heavily on college players this year. It also is not the worst thing that at the very least the Phillies are trying new things in hopes of better results. In years past they loved the high upside, 'toolsy' player, but as they are currently finding out those kids don't always pan out. 

However, this year the Phillies selected 7 college players through 7 rounds before taking their first high school prospect in the 8th round.  A very different plan of attack indeed, and it came as a huge surprise for fans who are familiar with how the Phillies draft.  What came next really had people guessing what the Phillies' plan was for the draft.  From rounds 9-28 the Phillies chose a college player, finishing out the last 11 rounds with mainly high school kids and a few Junior College picks.  Before further discussing the possible reasons for such a different strategy lets meet some of these new faces.

7th Overall Selection Aaron Nola: 6-foot-2 right handed pitcher from LSU, Nola has been the absolute anchor of the LSU pitching staff the past two years.  He boasts average or above average pitches across the board, but his calling card is his masterful command of those pitches.  He throws hard from a 3/4 arm slot, 91-93 with his fastball, but in a league with 96+ becoming the norm 91-93 isn't what it used to be.  If Nola's command is as good as advertised though his pitches will play up because he'll keep batters off balance by locating any pitch he wants to.  A relatively safe bet to make the majors in some capacity due to his already present ability; he has the potential to be a #2 starter on a staff.

2nd Round Selection Matt Imhof:  Not drafted coming out of high school; the 6-foot-5 left handed hurler found himself performing on Friday night (equivalent to College Football Saturday) for Cal Poly as a junior this year.  Backed by a strong season, in which he was one of the premier strike out artists in college, Imhof rocketed up draft boards and was taken 47th overall by the Phillies.  Imhof already owns a pretty good arsenal of pitches that he can throw for strikes more times than not.  His body may still have some filling out to do, which could help ramp up his fastball and land a spot on in the starting rotation down the road.  Imhof is no finished product like Nola though, his secondary pitches do need work.  

8th Round Selection Sam McWilliams:  Taken as the first high school kid of their class, McWilliams hails from Texas and is committed to Texas Tech.  The Phillies will hope to sign him away from that commit, even if it requires paying a little extra.  There is not much on McWilliams, but he is a highly projectable right handed pitcher.  Sam is long at 6-foot-7 and from most reports fairly skinny.  He can touch 94 MPH on the gun, but cannot do so consistently, but the hope as he matures and his body develops that 94, or higher, is the number consistently displayed on radar guns.

Other Notables:  One of several local boys, senior pitcher from Temple University Matt Hockenberry was selected in the 10th round.  He doesn't project to have much more than a minor league career, but it is a good story and allows the Phillies to sign players like Sam McWilliams.  In the 32nd round the Phillies selected Superbowl winner, Joe Flacco's brother, Tom Flacco.  Like his brother, Tom plays football and is committed to Western Michigan as a football recruit.  It might be difficult to sign him away from that and turn him into a full time outfielder on the diamond.  A few rounds later the Phillies selected the son of Eagles General Manager, Thomas Gamble.  He too will most likely honor his football commitment. Last but not least, catcher Blake Wiggins, who was selected in the 36th round out of Pulaski Academy in Arkansas.  It remains unknown as to whether Wiggins will sign with the Phillies or go on to college, but there is power in this kid's bat that the Phillies felt it was worth taking a chance on.  Currently a catcher, a move to somewhere in the infield might eventually be in store for Wiggins, hopefully he makes that move at the suggestion of Phillies coaches.

Now I'd love to go into all 40 rounds as much as the next person, but my laptop might catch fire.  Keep these names in mind, and there are others that you can find here.  As I mentioned earlier, the Phillies changed their strategy up this year.  For better or for worse will be determined by the results, but as to why they did this should and can be discussed presently.  In recent years the Phillies have been known to select players with loads of upside and not so much solid baseball players.  Former first round picks in 2008, Zach Collier and Anthony Hewitt fit that all upside mold, but unfortunately for everyone involved they never panned out.  These are just two examples of toolsy picks recently made by the Phillies, but they are extremely important examples.  I'm going to assume these players' failures have helped the Phillies realize the value in drafting some safer bets to reach the big league club.  With seven straight college players taken by the Phillies to open the draft, the assumption is not a stretch.

 Most fans will agree that taking safer players is not a bad thing, but those who did follow the Phillies' draft were probably in question most about the volume of older talent the Phillies selected throughout the draft.  This is where my other hunch about their reasoning on the Phillies direction in last week's draft.  For a couple a years now, and even more so right now, there are not many players to get excited about moving through the minor league system.  While this is the case at the higher levels of the system it is not the case in the lowest levels of the Phillies farm system.  In fact there is quite a lot to be excited about at Lakewood (A level) and the few levels below that.  Some of the excitement is merely on name like with German prospect Julsan Kamara or Dominican signee Luis Encarnacion.  Most of the other excitement at these low levels lays within already performing players like J.P. Crawford, Dylan Cozens, Jose Pujols, Deivi Grullon, Carlos Tocci, Samuel Hiciano, and more. 

Given that most of these young guys are position players, stocking up on older arms in this year's draft starts to make a little more sense.  The Phillies may wisely be putting stock into the quality of their young talent, hoping they will rise through the ranks quickly, quickly enough to reach the soon to be large influx of older pitchers. This could backfire as some or most of these guys may not pan out leaving these college arms without a team behind them.  What it does at the very minimum is restock some of the pitching that is sorely needed at every level of the Phillies organization, until next year when they can really start to fill out the farm with a wider mix of upside and safe players much like the 2013 draft.  For the Phillies' sake though, as long as MLB players are produced from this class the critics will be silenced, and their change in philosophy will be legitimized.  


Cole Miller, from Haddonfield, NJ, is currently a sophomore Sport Management major at Drexel. Over the summer, Cole volunteered for the 43rd SABR convention, a large convention with many speakers and other events for baseball fans who enjoy the new age statistics being brought to baseball such as WAR (wins above replacement ).   Cole is a huge fan of baseball, specifically the Phillies.

You can connect on Cole on LinkedIn here.

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