Inside the Phillies: Pitching-thin Phillies look to draft

Ruben Amaro Jr. does not appear to have learned from his predecessor, Pat Gillick.
Ruben Amaro Jr. does not appear to have learned from his predecessor, Pat Gillick. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: May 25, 2014

There were times in the last few weeks when Ruben Amaro Jr. departed Philadelphia to watch high school and college baseball players. It is not unusual for a general manager to scout potential draft picks, especially when the selection is among the top 10. Amaro, though, has taken a considerable amount of interest in this summer's draft.

The Phillies pick seventh on June 5. That it is their highest slot since 2001, when they drafted righthander Gavin Floyd fourth. This selection is an important one for Amaro and his amateur scouting department, hence the extra attention.

"Pitching is always a priority in every single draft because it's the backbone of being a winning team," Amaro said. "Pitching and defense are the two things necessary for you to win. That's always a priority. That doesn't necessarily mean it is going to be our first pick or our second pick. If the right pitcher is there, we'll take him."

There is a definite need. The Phillies system lacks a stable of quality starting pitching prospects. David Buchanan, unprotected last winter in the Rule 5 draft and a late invitee to spring training, was summoned Saturday to replace Cliff Lee.

The 25-year-old righthander, drafted in the seventh round, ascended the depth chart because of injuries. He was never hailed as a prospect, but that does not preclude him from building a solid career. After Buchanan, there are no major-league-ready pitching prospects. The dearth of any promising options, period, is even more concerning for the Phillies future beyond 2014.

"We're short," Amaro said. "Yes, that is an area of need for us."

Lefthander Jesse Biddle, the Germantown Friends graduate, is repeating double A this season. He could slot into the back of the Phillies rotation come 2015. That is no guarantee, but it is the closest one the Phillies possess.

"You have to get very creative to find more," one rival scout said.

Said another scout: "Their pitching prospects are few and far between."

Amaro signed Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez for $12 million last summer. "He's still getting his feet wet," Amaro said. It is unlikely that Gonzalez, 27, will reach the majors in 2014. His future is murkier.

Shoulder injuries have taken down Jonathan Pettibone, Adam Morgan, and Shane Watson. Both Morgan and Watson, who was the team's first pick (40th overall) in 2012, drew decent reviews before each required shoulder surgery. It is difficult to project how that will affect their futures. Yoel Mecias, a promising 20-year-old lefty, underwent Tommy John surgery last summer. Tyler Viza, a 32d-round pick in 2013, has impressed during his first taste of pro ball. He is 19.

Severino Gonzalez, 21, earned organization honors as pitcher of the year in 2013 as a total revelation. The Panamanian righthander "will be a major-league starter at some point," Amaro said. Scouts are less convinced. Most see a pitcher who could help, possibly as a fifth or sixth starter or long man in the bullpen, but nothing more than that.

The Phillies may have to replace three rotation spots in 2015. Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez are free agents. A.J. Burnett has an option for another year, but he is likely to retire. Plus, Lee could be flipped in a trade this summer if healthy and the Phillies fall from contention.

That is why the Phillies could opt for a pitcher - maybe even a college one - with the No. 7 pick. Their pitching inventory is bleak.

"We need more of them," Amaro said. "We don't have enough of them. I don't think any organization has enough of them."

The Phillies have drafted 23 pitchers in the first 10 rounds since 2009. Seven either did not sign or have since been released. Most became relievers; just seven have started at least one game this season in the minors for the Phillies. Buchanan was the third pitcher in that group to reach the majors. Josh Zeid (with Houston) and Mario Hollands arrived as relievers before him.

Of course, prospects can be found after the draft's first 10 rounds. The odds are just longer. Just two pitchers drafted by the Phillies after the 10th round have made at least five starts for them since 2000: Tyler Cloyd (18th round in 2008) and Scott Mathieson (17th round in 2002).

"When you don't draft very high, it makes it difficult," Amaro said. "You have to get lucky in later rounds of the draft."

In addition, Amaro noted, the Phillies traded a few pitchers who later started in the majors. Jarred Cosart heads a list that includes J.A. Happ, Vance Worley, Kyle Drabek, Carlos Carrasco, and Josh Outman. None of those pitchers has developed into a rotation mainstay.

The uncertainty of pitching prompted a maxim in baseball circles: "There is no such thing as a pitching prospect." The Phillies have produced few in recent years, and a starters crunch could soon result.


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb www.inquirer.com/

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