Even fans who've followed prospect news only casually over the last couple years have at one point or another noticed the Phillies making a trade to acquire developing talent. Since 2014, when their affiliates from Rookie ball to Triple-A combined to go 303-393 (a .435 winning percentage), it's been a major priority.
"I'll tell you this: we talk about this a lot internally," said Philadelphia director of player development Joe Jordan. "In 2014, we had the worst winning percentage in Minor League Baseball, and since then things have turned around quite a bit. During that time, we had Maikel Franco and [Andrew] Pullin and [J.P.] Crawford and a lot of other guys in our system, but we didn't have the volume, we didn't have the numbers."
They shook up the Minors landscape at the trade deadline in 2015 with the Cole Hamels deal, which brought two of the system's current top five prospects -- Nick Williams (No. 3) and Jorge Alfaro (No. 4) -- in addition to big league hurler Matt Harrison and three young arms that have already graduated to the Majors: Jake Thompson, Jerad Eickhoff and Alec Asher
On the same day, Jimmy Cordero (No. 25) and Alberto Tirado (No. 28), who showed brilliance in a few 2016 starts, came over from Toronto in exchange for Ben Revere. They added Mark Appel (No. 10), Tom Eshelman (No. 18) and Harold Arrauz, along with a couple big leaguers, by sending Ken Giles to the Astros in December. And just a few months ago, they insisted on hauling in a couple more prospects -- Tommy Bergjans and Joey Curletta -- along with A.J. Ellis when they traded longtime catcher Carlos Ruiz to the Dodgers.
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The Yankees organization was already on the right track coming into the season, and blockbuster deals sending Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs and Andrew Miller to the Indians brought in three additional Top 100 prospects -- Clint Frazier (No. 15) Gleyber Torres (No. 17) and Justus Sheffield (No. 78). New York affiliates went 507-441 for a .535 winning percentage, and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre won the International League's Governors' Cup and the Triple- A National Championship. Also Gary Sanchez graduated from the Minors and hit 20 home runs over 53 Major League games. Voting results »
These deals were a considerable factor, though not the only one, in improving the Philadelphia system to the point where, two years after finishing at the bottom, it finished 482-348 for the best winning percentage (.581) among National League organizations and second in all of baseball. (Seattle had a .590 winning percentage.) For that overall performance, which netted five domestic affiliates a trip to the playoffs, and for their depth of quality prospects, the Phillies earned the 2016 Best Farm System MiLBY Award.
To Jordan's eye, the impact of the newcomers went beyond the statistically obvious. They helped create an environment in which the promising players the Phillies already had were able to blossom.
"When we got [more depth], they all got to play together, and they all got better. Everybody benefited from that," he said.
But as difficult as it would be to overstate the impact, players who came into the system through other means can't be ignored.
"If you really look at the system -- this is how it's supposed to work -- we got talent from the Draft and talent from international signings and talent from trades," Jordan said. "We have a lot of scouts in every venue of player evaluation in the world. We get talent from everywhere, and that's good -- player procurement is what you want. We've had people make a lot of good decisions, and we've gotten a lot of good recommendations, and we have a great group of teachers working with our players."
Frank Cacciatore, the hitting coach for Double-A Reading, is one of those teachers, and he finds the front office's commitment to bringing in top prospects inspiring.
"For me, and I know talking to other guys in the organization who are my peers and my friends, it's an exciting time in this organization," he said. "I came over when we were on top, and in 2008 we won it all, and we stayed on top for a couple years after. To watch this organization revive itself and see the prospects we have and pushing them up there and especially some of the guys we have on the mound, I think we're not too far away."
From the front office to the field staffs, the club takes a personal approach to player development that varies according to the individual -- that's especially important given that the system is continually adding new faces.
"First and foremost, we get to know the player. We have a good mix of players. Some come up in our system from day 1 -- they're a little more in tune with the things we do and the things we believe in -- and we have an orientation period, if you will, when we get players in trades," Jordan said.
"We take a real slow approach. We like to let them play and get to know them as players and people. It's just patience, being as patient as you can. I think the worst thing you can do is get in a hurry, especially if you want to make changes. Our scouts like the players for what they did [before coming into the system], and I think we owe it to our talent evaluators to let them play."
Cacciatore's Fightin Phils squad rode the historic seasons of Rhys Hoskins and MiLBY Top Offensive Player Dylan Cozens into the Eastern League semifinals, and Cacciatore believes Cozens' progress in particular owes something to the workload planned by Andy Tracy, Philadelphia's Minor League hitting coordinator.
"The way we structure our work as the Phillies organization, and the way Andy Tracy sets up the structure of how we do our work, and with [Cozens] buying into the program, doing his work, and plus maturing as a player and a person, to me, he's on the verge of just shooting up," Cacciatore said.
Jordan admitted that following Cozens and Hoskins was a particularly gratifying experience as the duo combined for 78 homers, 241 RBIs and 29 stolen bases.
"It was very satisfying. Starting with Cozens, the thing that's so hard to keep focused on here is, this guy never played baseball full-time until he was a professional. It was always kind of a second sport for him," Jordan said of the former high school football standout. "He had a lot to learn, and he's interested in the whole game. His offensive numbers grabbed all the attention -- and I get it, because it's been very fun to watch -- but what he did on the bases, what he did in the outfield, he's evolved into a baseball player. The talent is taking over for him.
"Rhys is smart. Since the day we got him, he's hit, he's driven in runs and he has a good plan. He's a very consistent player at the plate. With a runner on third base and less than two outs, he's very happy to take a groundball to get the run in. He's a mature guy, and he's going to be a productive big league hitter. Those two guys fed off each other. There were other good players on that team, but those two had a thing going on, and the deeper it got, the more they fed off each other. They enjoyed it. It was special."
Cozens and Hoskins came into the system via the Draft, as did Crawford -- MLB.com's No. 2 overall prospect --- and other top prospects like Mickey Moniak and Kevin Gowdy (2016), Cornelius Randolph and Scott Kingery (2015), Andrew Knapp (2013), Roman Quinn (2011) and others. When prepping for the Draft, Phillies scouts evaluate much more than raw talent.
"I think [our scouts] know what they're looking for. They have a good feel for what plays," Jordan said. "The thing that I've been impressed with, and this goes back the last couple years but even beyond that, is that we get good character guys. Our players play for each other. We have a good culture. We have a good thing going in that regard. Mickey Moniak is a talented player. Gowdy is a talented player. But the thing is, they're really good kids. When I look back over the last four or five Drafts, we have very good character people."
Having talented, "good character people" surrounded by worthy peers and working through deliberately tailored development plans has delivered good results.
"It's a combination of a lot of people doing a lot of good things," Jordan said. "I don't have any question -- what's happening is a result of our players getting better. Our talent is so much stronger than it's been since I've been here.
"There are things we're doing, obviously, on the field, but there are things we're doing off the field, too, with our Latin players and the cultural adjustments, and with cultural development. We really believe that in the National League, the way to win is to build baseball players. Their talent is their talent, but we try to build baseball players. It sounds overly simple, but that's our approach -- if guys know how to play the game, you're going to win games."
To Cacciatore, it seems that sooner rather than later the franchise will be winning games on the Major League level, in a big way.
"Things happen pretty quick. You get one or two extra pieces, and before you know it, you're back on top," he said. "It's really fun to watch the type of talent and also the quality of the individuals we're getting, and between those two things, it's real good time to be a Phillie."