This is the second of a two-part series. You can catch more of our exclusive interview with John Middleton throughout the week on SportsNet Central.
John Middleton became part of the Phillies' ownership group in 1994, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2015, with the hiring of Andy MacPhail as team president, that he jumped out into the spotlight and put a face on the team’s ownership group.
Middleton recently sat down for an interview with CSN Philadelphia. In the first part of the Q&A, he talked about his growing role with the club and his vision for the future (see story). In this installment, he talks specifically about the team's rebuild and when he envisions the Phillies rising to power again in the National League.
Q: Two years into the rebuild, what's your progress report?
A: I'm excited where we are. I think we're on track, on schedule.
We're rebuilding in two areas of the business simultaneously. We can't think of one with the exclusion of the other. So there's an on-field rebuild, and an off-field rebuild.
I think if you're looking at the Phillies in 2016 and you compare it to 2014 and 2015, I don't think there's any question that we've made progress. [We won 71 games], so that's real improvement. We have young players who are playing with effort, energy and enthusiasm, and I think the fans reacted well to that.
Maikel Franco, there’s a lot of talent there. I think people think very highly of Odubel Herrera. I think they look at some of our pitchers, (Aaron) Nola, (Vince) Velasquez has opened a lot of eyes, I think Jerad Eickhoff has opened a lot of eyes, too. He’s very consistent day in and day out.
If you get underneath the surface a little, you've heard (GM) Matt Klentak preach about the importance of controlling the strike zone for both our hitters and our pitchers. Our walks-per-nine-innings are better. Our strikeout-to-walks ratio is better. Matt's philosophy of controlling the strike zone is really the cornerstone of his vision of Phillies baseball going forward. It's how we're going to be successful, and it’s taking hold.
Let's talk about the minor leagues because that's also on-field performance. In my opinion, our minor-league record is nothing short of phenomenal. Our six domestic teams had a combined winning percentage of .595. That's not just the best winning percentage in all of baseball, it's the highest winning percentage an organization has had since the Yankees posted a .597 clip in 2007.
Now, a lot of people say, 'Your winning percentage is great, but what really matters is bringing the elite players up — you've got to bring those special players up that are going to be productive every day as starters.' Well, among those six minor-league teams, we had 27 All-Stars, nine of whom were at (Single A) Clearwater.
Q: Which minor leaguer excites you the most?
A: I have 27 All-Stars and there are other guys who are going to be better than even those guys.
Q: How far away is the team that plays here now?
A: This summer, Matt prepared a study looking at the last six successful rebuilds. That included the Royals, Pirates, Mets, Orioles, Cubs and Astros. What the study shows is that it took the Cubs and Astros three years of rebuilding and then the fourth year they made the playoffs. The Orioles and Mets took four years of rebuilding and the fifth year they were in the playoffs. The Pirates were five years of rebuilding and the sixth year they were in the playoffs, and the Royals were six years to get to a winning record, seven years to get to the playoffs. So that kind of gives you a sense for the timeframe or the guidelines. No one has done it faster than three, and the longest was six or seven with the Royals. So that's kind of where I think people should be thinking about.
I'm thinking we're towards the lower end of that. But look, Aaron (Nola) is injured. Does he come back healthy and pitch effectively? Zach Eflin is injured. Is he going to come back and pitch effectively? Does some minor leaguer who we think is really good take a step up in 2017 and is ready for an August call-up or not? Does a current starter take a step up? Look at Tommy Joseph. He wasn't even on the radar a year ago. Not even on our radar. We cut him, 29 other teams passed on him. So we re-signed him. Now here he is, he's got 300 at-bats, 20-plus home runs, he's hitting .260-ish. The guy kind of came out of nowhere in a lot of ways. So does somebody do that or not? As Matt said, our players are going to tell us when they're ready. Those are the kind of things that the players tell you. They come out of the blue, or they don't progress. But I think we're going to be on the lower end of that rebuild timeframe.
Q: You mentioned Nola. This fall he's going to go out and test his elbow and that's going to be a big storyline because this kid is a foundation piece of your rotation.
A: You know his numbers better than anybody. For the first part of the year, they were astonishing.
Q: How concerned are you about him?
A: I'm always concerned for our players’ health. Not just Aaron's because something could happen tomorrow to one of our starters, you just don't know. Somebody could get hit by a pitch and break something. There's all kinds of things that could happen every day. I worry about their health every day.
Q: On-field, what is the next step in the rebuild this offseason?
A: Matt and Andy really have the responsibility for dealing with that, but they talk to us and we've already started talking about issues like our current team and where we see strengths and weaknesses in the free-agent market. This year's free-agent market is not good, so you have limited options there, but the next year it gets better, and then the year after that, whether people get signed or not, can get really, really good.
Q: The 2018 free-agent class could be loaded. You've already got that in your periscope?
A: You have to be thinking years in advance here.
Q: So, in terms of this winter, will you let this rebuild unfold a little more before being real active in free agency?
A: There's a number of ways we can improve and we're going to be looking at all of the avenues and we're going to be pushing the envelope as much as we can, but when we get into trades, for example, it takes two to tango. We can want to do something and somebody else can say, 'Thank you, no.' So we don't necessarily know where we're going to go at this point in time precisely. We know directionally where we need to go, we understand that our corner outfield — that our offense is down. It's bad. It's almost on the bottom of all the offensive statistics. We know we have to work on that and we're going to do what we can to improve that.
Q: You’ve made it clear you are not in favor of a quick fix. How patient can you be and will you be before this team is a contender?
A: If you talk to people who have worked with me over the decades, I think I can be very patient as long as I'm confident that we have a strategic plan that has the right goal and objective, and that we're on track and on schedule. I can even accept setbacks because nothing improves in a direct straight line. I'm used to having a plan and having something go wrong and having to adjust on the fly. I'm OK with that.
Q: When you guys are ready, will you spend big again?
A: You know that's the case. For years we ranked between No. 2 and No. 4 in payroll. We have the revenue base and the fan base to do that.
Q: What's the defining instance when you break out the checkbook?
A: Matt and Andy handle the baseball side, and we're relying on them to tell us when it's time to turn on that faucet. But my own view on free agency is I don't think you can build a successful franchise over time in free agency. I think to build a successful franchise over time requires that you supply your core base internally. That means you have to have great scouting, you have to acquire the talent that you scout, and you have to develop that talent in the minor leagues consistently. When you get a core as we did in the late 70s for example and again in the 2005 to 2007 time period, you can add free agents. You can look at your roster and say, 'OK, we have all these talented people but we need this, or we need that.' Bringing Brad Lidge in changed that team. It was an important missing piece that took us to another level.
Q: How patient do you think this fan base will be?
A: I was born and raised in Philadelphia. I started watching baseball in the late '50s. When the Phillies started to arrive in 1975, people showed up. This is Philadelphia, we are sports nuts here, and I put myself in that category. I live and die Philadelphia sports.
Q: Do you pick up any messages from those empty seats?
A: Actually, our attendance is up slightly in 2016 versus 2015. It hasn't gone up a lot, but it's up.
Q: But it's not 257 sellouts.
A: No, it's not, and we won't get there until we have the team that warrants that attention. But the fact that our attendance is up this year compared to last year goes back to what I said. The team is better on the field, the players are young, energetic, enthusiastic, and they're giving a hard effort, and fans are reacting to that. Would I like to sell more seats? Of course I would, but we're fine, and we're not financially unstable because of the empty seats. We're going to do OK.
But we need to build this the right way. We need to be patient. As Andy said in his initial press conference, if you look at the teams that are willing to stay the course and do it the right way, they get rewarded — and that's what we need to do.