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August 22, 2019

Kevin Cooney: Phillies have been absolutely dismal at developing starting pitching — and it's cost them

Since the day that Andy MacPhail came to the Phillies back in that forgettable summer of 2015 — shortly after Ryne Sandberg resigned, about two months before Ruben Amaro was shown the door — he has lived by one constant motto when it comes to free agency.

Develop the arms, buy the bats.

During an interview in the spring of 2016, MacPhail outlined his philosophy and how he had implemented in during his last stop as President of the Baltimore Orioles.

“It’s hard to pay for pitchers — you are going to pay full retail for free-agent starters and that's a dicey proposition because we know how fragile starting pitchers can be,” MacPhail said. “That doesn't mean you eliminate yourselves from that market — I think realistic, that's the way we had to skew in Baltimore and I think that we have a similar situation in Philadelphia. We may get there if we think that's the missing piece. But it is a known fact that if you are in the free-agent starting pitching market, there's a lot of risk there and probably more risk there than other places.”

It's all well and good to think that way. But MacPhail clearly was blissfully ignorant to the Phillies own history — or lack thereof — in developing starting pitching that could carry a contention squad.

Starting pitching development to the Phillies has become what goaltending was to the Flyers over the past two decades — an endless black hole of misery. The fact that journeyman soft-tossers Jason Vargas and Drew Smyly are not just in a rotation of a team trying to make a September playoff push, but arguably two of the top three starters at the present time should blast that fact out loud.

And yet, this is not a new problem. Take this back over 50 years to the opening of Veterans Stadium and ask yourself how many Phillies All-Star starting pitchers have come from their farm system to pitching in the All-Star Game with a “P” on their hat?

The answer is seven — Rick Wise (1971), Dick Ruthven (1981 — although he did spent two years with the Braves since breaking in with the Phils in 1973), Kevin Gross (1988), Tyler Green (1995), Randy Wolf (2002), Cole Hamels (three times in 2007, 2011 and 2012) and now Aaron Nola (2018).

Forget All-Stars, name a starting rotation of Phillies-drafted pitchers in that timeframe. Hamels and Nola would be the no-brainers. After that, you could take a look at guys like Ruthven (solid, for the 1980 World Champions), Wolf (the ultimate definition of a crafty lefthander) and Brett Myers to fill out the list.

During the Phillies glory run from 2007-2011, they averaged just about two starters from their system who would be in the Top 5 in the number of games started on the staff. Hamels was the given all five years. Vance Worley, Kyle Kendrick, J.A. Happ and Myers would interchange in and out in the other spots. (Some of that was due to shuffling Myers and Kendrick back and forth to the bullpen.)

Make no mistake that this isn’t just a Phillies issue. But this is an issue for the organization to look very closely at. The barren nature of the starting pitching development that the club has experienced over the past reeks to either poor scouting at the amateur level or poor coaching philosophy that leads to breakdowns in talent.

The first-round picks show that. From the time they took Hamels in 2002 in the first round and Nola in 2014, the Phillies took five pitchers in the main draft or compensation rounds. They were Kyle Drabek (who broke down after being included in the Roy Halladay trade with Toronto), Joe Savery (44 appearances in the majors, never started a game), Jesse Biddle (made majors in 2018 with Braves as a reliever), Shane Watson (who was suspended for PED use and was last seen in the Atlantic League last year) and Mitch Gueller (released out of Lakewood in 2016, now playing college football at Idaho State).

You have to have a better track record than that as an organization. Since Nola, the Phillies have not drafted a starting pitcher in the first round – which coincides with the time that MacPhail and Matt Klentak have been running the ship. Spencer Howard is a quick riser in the system as a 2017 second round pick, but Kevin Gowdy (the pick made in 2016 at the top of the second round) has battled injury issues and struggled.

So how does this tie into the future? This off-season, the Phillies are going to face a huge decision on the MacPhail doctrine. They have already tilted slightly away from it on Jake Arrieta two years ago. But for this team to become a serious contender, it likely will need two top-to-middle-rotation types to fill behind Nola and dropping Arrieta back to a fourth or fifth rotation spot.

It means that they have to dive into the deep end of the pool that they don’t want to do and sign Gerrit Cole, Madison Bumgarner or even bring back Hamels for a second act. While Howard or Adonis Medina may be up at some point, the Phillies can’t realistically count on them being the type of starters needed for contention.

It isn’t a pleasant option. It is one that is full of risk as the Arrieta signing has shown. But given that or the path that hasn’t really been fruitful in 50 years, it is an easy one to make.