PHILS INSIDER

Harper calls out Phils' minor-league system and the numbers support his critique

PHILS INSIDER

The Phillies themselves called attention to their weak farm system when they had to burrow all the way down to the Dominican Summer League to find their minor-league pitcher of the year in 2021.

No offense to Jean Cabrera, a 19-year-old right-hander from Venezuela who has put himself on the map as a legitimate, albeit far away, prospect in the Phillies' system, but it does say something about the pitching depth and performance by the organization's four U.S-based, full-season minor-league clubs when the Paul Owens award, named in honor of the late, great scout, player-development ace and World Series-winning general manager, goes to someone who made just 13 starts and pitched only 52⅔ innings at a low classification in his first season of pro ball.

There is a shortage of talent in the Phillies' minor-league system and you don't have to be a subscriber to Baseball America to know that.

You just have to listen to Bryce Harper.

Before the trade deadline, the Phillies' slugger used the word "depleted" to describe the system. After Sunday's season finale, he doubled down.

"We're a little behind in the minor leagues right now," he said. "I think you guys know that, I think I know that, I think our fans and everybody else knows that."

Harper was speaking in the context of what offseason improvements the team needs to make to snap a 10-year postseason drought, the longest in the NL.

"Of course, you go into every offseason wanting an opportunity to get a top guy," Harper said. "But we can't just keep going out and buying and buying and buying. We need homegrown talent. When you look at teams that have homegrown talent, those are the teams that have success. I think, as a whole, we need our minor leagues to be better. We need guys to come up from the minor leagues and have success and be successful. Not have to go up and down."

 

Acknowledging that it is ironic to hear Harper, a man whose $330 million contract was once the largest in the history of the game, talk about the impracticality of relying solely on the checkbook to build a team, he is not wrong.

And he's not wrong about the state of the Phillies' minor-league system and the job that amateur scouting boss Brian Barber, still relatively new to the organization after presiding over two drafts, and newly appointed farm director Preston Mattingly face.

Sure, there are prospects to feel good about in the Phillies' system. Pitchers Mick Abel and Andrew Painter, both in the low minors, are two of them, as is infielder Bryson Stott, who could be in play at shortstop, third base or second base sometime in 2022.

But a quick check of the numbers reveals an overall bleakness in the Phillies' farm system. 

The Triple A Lehigh Valley club finished the 2021 season 14 games under .500. Among 20 teams in Triple A East, its pitching staff led the league in walks (579), ranked 19th in WHIP (1.49) and 14th in ERA (5.03). Offensively, the Triple A club ranked 20th in OPS (.685) and 17th in batting average (.236.)

The Double A Reading club finished 17 games under .500. Among 12 teams in Double A Northeast, it finished 11th in ERA (4.81) and WHIP (1.43) and led the league in walks (470). Offensively, the Reading club ranked 10th out of 12 teams in batting average (.232), OPS (.704) and strikeouts (1,032).

At Jersey Shore, in the 12-team High A East league, the Phillies' club finished six games under .500. On the pitching side, the team ranked third in walks (479), 10th in WHIP (1.41) and sixth in ERA (4.56). Offensively, the team was last in batting average (.221) and OPS (.660).

At Clearwater, in the 10-team Low A Southeast league, the club finished 12 games under .500. The pitching staff finished seventh in ERA (4.59) and fourth in walks (577) and strikeouts (1,182), while the offense was eighth in OPS (.683) and ninth in batting average (.224).

None of this bodes particularly well for the future.

The Phillies on Sunday fired Joe Dillon as big-league hitting coach after just two seasons.

"Whoever comes in to replace Joe Dillon, we definitely need a top guy that can come in and mix well with us and mold us well," Harper said. "Understanding game plans, what type of hitters we want to be, what type of hitters we need to be. We need guys to come up from the minor leagues that can have success for us. That's huge as well. When guys aren't having success from the minor leagues into the big leagues, that hurts us also. So we just need to be all-around better as a team and as an organization with our hitting plan and everything else that comes with that."

 

Harper is a top candidate for NL MVP but in three seasons with the Phillies has not played in the postseason. Three years of his prime have passed in Philadelphia without playing a playoff game. He will play at 29 next season.

Before signing with the Phillies, Harper was pursued by the Dodgers and Giants, who won a combined 213 games this season and are both in the postseason.

Harper indicated that he has no regrets about signing with the Phillies. He has a decade to go on his deal. Hence, his concern about the minor-league system and its long-range impact.

"I want to stick it out, I want to play here, I want to be here," he said. "I said that at the beginning. I want to go through the good and the bad. But like I said, we need to trust our minor leagues to step up and do their jobs as much as possible. We can't just go out and keep spending and spending and spending and not being able to rely on the guys that are coming up from our minor-league system."

With huge financial commitments to Harper, pitcher Zack Wheeler and catcher J.T. Realmuto, and with the foundation of a starting pitching staff in place, the Phillies cannot slip back into a rebuild. They would not have hired a win-now executive like Dave Dombrowski 10 months ago if that were on the horizon.

The Phillies have huge holes -- back end of the rotation, back end of the bullpen, center field, left field, leadoff man, left side of the infield -- and Dombrowski will look to fill as many as he can this winter. He will have to spend some money on free agents and possibly make trades because there's not enough coming from the system to significantly fix things. Homegrown Alec Bohm will have to be better on both sides of the ball, regardless of where he plays in 2022. Ditto for homegrown reliever Connor Brogdon. Starting pitcher Ranger Suarez, another homegrown talent, was brilliant in 2021 and needs to build on that.

"I'm excited about this offseason," Harper said. "I know Dombro wants to win, and I know that we have the right guy leading us up top to make that happen. I trust in him, I trust him to do his job, and I'm excited to see what's ahead."

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