Starting in October and running through the end of the year, MiLB.com's State of the System series will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each Major League organization, highlights prospects who've made the biggest strides in 2020 and offers a peek at 2021.
There are things to like about where the Phillies stand as 2020 wanes. They have Bryce Harper under contract for 11 more seasons. They have National League Rookie of the Year co-runner-up Alec Bohm. They have as good a chance as any team at inking J.T. Realmuto, arguably the best catcher in the game, to a long-term contract. The top of their rotation -- Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Zach Eflin -- would be a daunting trio to deploy in a postseason series.
But Philadelphia hasn’t found a way to get that far. Former general manager Matt Klentak’s five-year tenure came and went without a winning season or playoff appearance. Only the Mariners have a longer playoff drought than the Phillies’ nine-year absence. And when managing partner John Middleton spoke with the media following Klentak’s demotion last month, he was blunt about why.
“You can’t build a championship team around free agents,” Middleton said, “and we just didn’t have the internal players coming up to really field the competitive team that we needed.”
Even if it’s also fair to say the full merit of the amateur talent brought into the system under Klentak is yet to be determined, Middleton’s assessment was true; Nola was the Phils' only Draft pick to amass more than 1.0 bWAR for the team this year. It will be the task of the next leadership group, as well as director of player development Josh Bonifay, to get more out of the club’s prospects.
System strengths: Spencer Howard, though likely the fourth or fifth member of the 2021 rotation, remains Philadelphia’s top prospect. First-rounder Mick Abel is MLB Pipeline’s No. 84 overall prospect. Adonis Medina and Francisco Morales round out the Phillies’ top five. All four players are right-handed pitchers, so the mound is where you’ll find the most promise within the Minor League ranks.
Sure, it sounds crazy to say pitching is the Phillies' strength when their bullpen ERA in 2020 was a historically bad 7.06. If the pitching prospects were so good, why didn’t they get a chance to help the struggling bullpen? Because they’re just not ready. Abel didn’t get to pitch his high school senior season because of the pandemic and just had his introduction to pro ball at the club’s instructional camp in Clearwater, Florida.
What Bonifay saw at instructs bodes well for the Phillies’ pitching stock beyond their top prospects. James McArthur, a 2018 12th-round pick who posted a 3.03 ERA in seven starts for Class A Advanced Clearwater to close out 2019, was the first name he mentioned. Christopher Soriano, a 19-year-old southpaw from the Dominican Republic, didn’t look overmatched. Dominic Pipkin, a 2018 ninth-round pick who posted a 5.15 ERA across 71 2/3 innings at Class A Lakewood in 2019, impressed with an improved fastball. Erik Miller, a 2019 fourth-rounder, showed more of the nasty arsenal that helped the lefty post a 1.50 ERA in his pro debut.
It’s worth noting that Miller, the club’s No. 10 prospect, is the only one in that group who's ranked in the Phillies’ Top 30. It seems the organization feels better about its pitchers than some outside evaluators.
“These are guys to watch for very soon in the future,” Bonifay said. “We feel good about where our arms are moving forward.”
Areas for growth: While Harper is entrenched in right field, it’s difficult to see the obvious long-term answer at the other outfield spots. Andrew McCutchen has one year left on his contract, while Roman Quinn and Adam Haseley have yet to stake a claim on the job in center. Things don’t get much clearer when looking in the system.
Four of the Phillies’ Top 30 prospects are outfielders: Simon Muzziotti (No. 11), Mickey Moniak (No. 12), Johan Rojas (No. 17) and Jhailyn Ortiz (No. 19).
Moniak, the top overall Draft pick in 2016, is still only 22 and got a brief taste of the Majors over the summer. Muzziotti was a 2019 Florida State League All-Star, although he's known more for his glove and speed than his bat. Ortiz signed for $4 million in 2015 because of his 60-grade power and probably would have played at Double-A in 2020. Rojas, 19, has added to his prospect stock the past two years but has yet to make his full-season debut.
If the Phillies are going to get back to their winning ways by developing from within, it’s logical at least one of them will have to become a productive everyday player. It’s possible. It’s just that other positions have more depth. Second-ranked Bryson Stott , No. 8 Casey Martin, No. 13 Nick Maton and No. 24 Kendall Simmons give the Phils a lot to be excited about up the middle. Seventh-ranked Rafael Marchan and Logan O'Hoppe show promise behind the plate.
“I think we're well-rounded as an organization,” Bonifay said. “I don't want anybody to sleep on us.”
What’s changed: Bohm went from one of Philadelphia’s best prospects to one of its best players. The 24-year-old hit .338 with four homers, 23 RBIs and an .881 OPS. He was clutch for the big league club, batting .452 (19-for-42) with runners in scoring position. His graduation from prospect status put Howard atop the Phillies’ rankings, but he should matriculate early next year. The expectation is that Howard will be healthier and better than the 5.92 ERA he posted over 24 1/3 innings.
Abel headlined Philadelphia's four-player Draft class. The 19-year-old power pitcher from Oregon didn’t fit the club's usual first-round mold -- it hadn’t dipped into the high school ranks that early since 2010 -- but Abel seemed worth it. Bonifay said he shined last month at instructs.
“He's the type of kid that wants to learn,” Bonifay said. “He's open-minded. He did a tremendous job during COVID to keep his body in shape, continue to throw and maximize his time during that to continue to grow as a player. But his fastball was electric. His slider had power with good swing-and-miss. And he's gonna be the complete package. He's mature beyond his age at this point and he's the kind of guy that brings a notebook with him everywhere he goes because wants to learn and he wants to soak up all the knowledge that he possibly can.”
After the abbreviated Draft, the Phils signed 10 more pitchers. They got their first look at most of them in pinstripes during instructional camp. Bonifay noted Billy Sullivan, Blake Brown, Noah Skirrow and Jonathan Hughes as standouts.
Right-hander Connor Seabold, now the No. 23 Red Sox prospect, was the most significant loss from the system. Philadelphia sent him and Nick Pivetta to Boston for Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman, who combined to allow 23 earned runs over 22 1/3 innings following the deal.
Alternate site standouts: When the Phillies assembled their initial 60-man player pool, it didn’t include many lower-level prospects or developmental projects; it was heavy on veterans and relief options. As the year went on, however, the average age at Coca-Cola Park dropped. And when injuries impacted the Major League roster, some of the youngest players at the alternate site had to step up. Medina, for example, made a spot start on Sept. 20.
“I think they all thrived to a certain extent. They all learned. They all grew," Bonifay said. "They all had the opportunity to see what competition at the highest level really means. They all had a chance to -- it's about getting results, it's about winning. It's beating your competition consistently, night in and night out. And they got to feel the pressure and they got to feel the bruises a little bit if they didn't succeed. But they also got to experience success in smaller degrees.”
Maybe no success was more surprising than Marchan. It’s not that the Phillies don’t think highly of their No. 7 prospect -- they do. Manager Joe Girardi showered praise on the 21-year-old’s receiving skills during Spring Training. But Marchan’s high-contact, low-power approach at the dish was still developing. He had never homered in 846 Minor League plate appearances, then clobbered a three-run dinger to spark a Sept. 18 win over the Blue Jays.
Impact rookies: Bohm, of course, had the most impact. He hit two walk-offs and received nine first-place votes for Rookie of the Year.
But Philadelphia's bullpen could have been even worse had it not been for No. 14 prospect JoJo Romero and Connor Brogdon. The former had a 2.89 ERA before two of his final three outings went poorly. The latter struggled in his first stint, then rejoined the big league roster in mid-September, didn’t allow a run over 8 2/3 innings and struck out the side in each of his final two frames. Both will be important relief options as the Phillies try to completely rebuild their bullpen.
“Brogdon was just refining some of his secondary stuff and continuing to get his velo back,” Bonifay said. “JoJo did an outstanding job of attacking the zone with his stuff and also showing a wipeout slider at times. I think these guys just really had a sense of urgency to get there, a want and a high desire to play at the highest level and compete. And they took advantage of all the resources that we had at the alternate site.”
Next big thing: Abel has the most potential of anyone in the system, but he won’t be next. Fourth-ranked Francisco Morales is a little closer. The 21-year-old right-hander has the stuff: his heater has life, his slider is gross and his changeup is not too far behind. He posted a 3.82 ERA with 129 strikeouts over 96 2/3 innings at Class A Lakewood in 2019. It will be interesting to see where he begins 2021, considering he’d likely be destined for Double-A on a timeline without COVID-19. His performance at instructs sounded good enough for a challenging assignment.
“Francisco Morales, he was electric as well,” Bonifay said. “He was getting the ball glove side. Location was a thing that we've continued to work on, but it was spot-on. Slider continues to be the big swing-and-miss pitch for him, and his fastball was up to 97. So it was really, really good.”
Joe Bloss is a contributor for MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jtbloss.