AnalysisNL East

Decade Long Playoff Drought and a Failing Farm System: Why the Phillies Continue to Fall Short

Phillies’ fans are once again missing out on postseason baseball as the Braves clinched their fourth straight division title and now advance to their second straight NLCS appearance. Playoff hopes are once again dashed by a poor September performance as the Phillies ended the month 13-14. For the 2018 and 2019 seasons in September, the Phillies were 20-36. The Phillies cannot play September baseball, as they continue to prove that they are not a formidable threat in the NL East. The Phillies have come a long way from that fateful October day in 2011 when they lost to the future World Series Champs, the Cardinals, as Ryan Howard collapsed to the ground from a ruptured Achilles that would in time end his career. That pain is still felt to this day as the Phillies end another season without a playoff appearance. How did we go from a Phillies dynasty to ten years without postseason baseball? How did we get here?

Austin Riley (right) hits a solo home run on the night the Braves clinch the division. AP Photo/John Bazemore

What happened this year?

The Phillies continued their tradition of having the worst bullpen in the league. Last year they set the record for the second-highest bullpen ERA since ERA was first calculated over 100 years ago, a stat that they also hold the first place record. The Phillies this past offseason acquired two relievers, Archie Bradley and Jose Alvarado, to fix the bullpen. Bradley finished his injury-riddled season with a 3.71 ERA and Alvarado would finish with an ERA of 4.28 while also blowing 3 saves. The Phillies’ bullpen was in a pivotal moment approaching the trade deadline as they looked for bullpen help. They acquired Ian Kennedy from the Rangers who at the time was one of the best relievers on the market to be the closer. Kennedy would end the season with an ERA of 4.50 and would blow more saves. The Phillies would go on to break a franchise record for blown saves (31) and tie the league record (34) for a season as reported by Todd Zolecki.

The bullpen cannot go on like this. The last few years have proven that the bullpen is a massive problem for this team as they continue to break the wrong kind of bullpen records. Do the problems stem from the manager? Player development? The coaching staff? The front office? No one knows where the problem stems from, but this bullpen problem has gone on for multiple seasons under two different managers, two different GMs, three different pitching coaches, and two different presidents of baseball operations.  Dombrowski has his work cut out for him to salvage the bullpen for next season because fans have had enough of this mess.

The Defense

Another major issue the Phillies had this season was the crippling defensive problems. The Phillies ended the season with a -55 DRS, which is dead last for the entire league while every other team in the NL East finished with a positive DRS. Phillies’ pitchers, however, did have the highest DRS in the entire league and among all Phillies’ defenders with 10. But, the Phillies have serious defensive problems at shortstop and third base as Didi Gregorius continues his downward spiral and Alec Bohm splits his time between the Phillies and Lehigh Valley. The Phillies are unfortunately stuck with Gregorius for another year as he approaches the final year of his two-year contract. He posted his worst offensive season in 2021 and his defensive miscues certainly cost the team this year along with his outrageous claims that the Covid-19 vaccine caused arthritis in his elbow. Bohm this season never returned to his 2020 self but with more development, he could be the franchise third baseman. The Phillies fired their infield coach, Juan Castros, so the Phillies need to aggressively hire a new infield coach to fix this messy infield that, other than second base and pitcher, posted a negative DRS this season.

What went right this season?

Zack Wheeler had an exceptional season as he posted career highs in shutouts, WHIP, innings pitched, strikeouts, and complete games while also sporting a 2.78 ERA and ERA+ of 150. He was the Phillies’ workhorse and ace as Aaron Nola struggled. Another Phillies pitcher who had an exceptional year is Ranger Suárez as he jumped from long reliever to closer to starting pitcher. He ended the season with a 1.36 ERA and ERA+ of 308! Ryan Spaeder and Todd Zolecki had this to say about Suárez’s historic season:

Offensively, the Phillies got some solid production from Jean Segura as he posted a .290 batting average and .348 OBP along with a 111 OPS+. This season he also had his second-highest career slugging percentage and tied a career-best in walks. The best player offensively though, was easily Bryce Harper. Harper led the league in slugging, OPS, and OPS+ while tied for the league-best in doubles. Harper is second behind Soto for OBP while also drawing 100 walks and hitting 35 HRs. Along with his 100 runs, Harper sported a .309 batting average. He is only the 4th outfielder in MLB history to have 40 doubles, 35 HRs, 100 walks, and 100 runs in a season.

According to Todd Zolecki, Harper also broke a Phillies franchise record:

The saddest part of this season is not that the Phillies missed the postseason for the 10th straight season but that Bryce blamed himself for it. In a press conference, Bryce said, “I felt like I let my team down, I let the city of Philadelphia down.” That is so far from the truth because he was the sole reason the Phillies had playoff hopes in the first place. He gave everything he had to reach the playoffs. He played in the Phillies’ last 72 games and there was only so much he could do by himself.

How did we get here?

The Phillies’ dynasty came to an end on October 7th, 2011 after 5 straight division crowns, two World Series berths, and one championship. In that time, Jimmy Rollins won an MVP, Ryan Howard hit 204 HRs, Roy Halladay won another Cy Young, and the Phillies broke a franchise record for wins in a season. Howard tearing his Achilles to end a heartbreaking season and division series would plunge the Phillies into a collapse that is still felt today. For the next few seasons, Philly would see the players from their beloved dynasty either traded away or retire.

Left to right: Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Roy Halladay, and Carlos Ruiz in 2010. Shaw/Getty

Payroll Problems

The first big problem started as the Phillies continue to balloon in payroll. The 2008 World Series Championship team had a payroll that was 13th in the league at under $100 million. That payroll would swell to second in the league by 2012 to $174 million. The Phillies dealt with heavy contracts from Howard, Halladay, Cliff Lee, Chase Utley, Hunter Pence, Rollins, Jonathan Papelbon, and Cole Hamels with the latter five being traded before their contracts expired. The Phillies would receive a myriad of prospects for these trades with those prospects mostly amounting to nothing. However, one of those prospects, Jorge Alfaro, would later go to Miami in the trade for J.T. Realmuto. The Phillies were stuck in a payroll hamster wheel, with these contracts for declining veterans proving a payroll burden for most of the early 2010s. The Phillies in 2015 lost 99 games but had the 9th highest payroll in baseball at $141 million. They would spend the next few seasons below league average for payroll until the 2019 acquisitions of Harper and Realmuto which jump-started them back into a top 10 payroll where they have been since. The Phillies in 2021 have the 6th highest payroll and next year’s estimates as of now have them with the fifth-highest payroll according to Spotrac.

As stated above, the Phillies’ payroll started ballooning as the team productivity declined. The farm system was gutted by GM Ruben Amaro Jr to acquire high-quality players like Halladay, Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Pence. Some of the talent the Phillies traded away include Carlos Carrasco, Jonathan Villar, Travis d’Arnaud, and J.A. Happ. The Phillies fell victim to the “win now” mentality as they burned money and traded away the future.

Ruben Amaro Jr when he was the GM of the Phillies. Bill Streicher/USA TODAY SPORTS

The Mismanagement of the Farm: A Recipe for Mediocrity

Chase Utley. Jimmy Rollins. Ryan Howard. Cole Hamels. Carlos Ruiz. What do all these guys have in common? They won a ring together and all came up through the Phillies’ minor league system. Whether drafted or signed internationally, those five guys developed in the minors and went on to play spectacular baseball for most of their Phillies’ careers. Since then, who have the Phillies developed in the minors over the past decade? A washed Nola? Injury-riddled Rhys Hoskins? Too soon Bohm? Scary (Hector) Neris? Maybe I am being too harsh since Nola could have just had a down year and Bohm is still young. But, the Phillies have not produced Utley, Howard, Hamels etcetera talent in well over a decade.

Prospect Mismangement

The Phillies drafted J.P. Crawford in 2013 and he spent many years on the top 100 prospects list. After struggling in Philly, Klentak and the rest of the front office gave up on him and traded him to Seattle in 2018 where he had his best season in 2021. In 2016, the Phillies used their number 1 pick to draft high school superstar Mickey Moniak. Moniak has spent the last two seasons between Philly and Lehigh Valley as he struggles to find a consistent groove. He came out of high school as a hitter for contact with speed and some power but now he appears to be a strictly home run hitter that cannot hit for average or steal bases anymore. The most frustrating Phillies’ prospect that the management has completely screwed with is Scott Kingery. Kingery is a utility guy who can hit for contact with “jetpack” speed (note: his nickname is JetPax). Kingery had an excellent 2019 season before contracting Covid-19 in 2020 which weakened him significantly. He struggled mightily in 2020 before landing on the IL for most of the 2021 season. Kingery as a utility guy has never settled on excelling at one position which is a huge problem when consistency is key to playing at the big league level. Kingery would spend one game in the outfield and the next game would find him in the infield. They never allowed him to settle at one or even two consistent positions. Kingery has played every single position in the majors except for catcher and 1st base in 4 major league seasons.

Adam Haseley was drafted in the first round of the 2017 draft and by 2019 was playing at the big league level. By rushing him into the majors, he never developed in the minors so now he still struggles at the AAA level. Alec Bohm was drafted in the first round of the 2018 draft and, like Haseley, was thrown into the majors two years after being drafted. Bohm had an exceptional 2020 season but only playing 44 games prior to this season is not enough of a sample size to see his big-league readiness. Bohm spent most of this season in Philly but struggled so he stayed in Lehigh Valley until the final Braves series. Bryson Stott, their 1st round draft pick from 2019, also looks to be rushed to get to the majors. In 2021, he spent time at high A, AA, and AAA in 112 games. The farm management in the past few years has adopted the strategy to rush talent to Philly as quickly as possible regardless of whether that player is ready or not. They have not taken the time to develop these players. Some familiar names of failed Phillies’ prospects include Dominic Brown, Cole Irvin, Tommy Joseph, Maikel Franco, Roman Quinn, Jesse Biddle, and countless others.

Graphic from NBC Sports Philadelphia

Declining Farm System and Chaos

As stated above, the Phillies depleted their farm system as part of the “win now” mentality. The Phillies in 2009 had the 12th best farm system according to Baseball America. By 2012, they had the 27th best. In 4 seasons the Phillies farm system would descend into chaos. Matt Gelb from The Athletic published an article on September 30th detailing the chaos within the Phillies’ farm system. He had this to say:

The Phillies had no identity in player development because they were trying to be everything while not doing anything well…There was no consensus buy-in to what the Phillies were doing. They were pushing swing changes and modern pitching philosophies forward, but no one knew what direction was the right one. Some were more vocal about it than others. Those were the people the Phillies tended to replace.

Matt Gelb, “The Phillies have a new farm director. Now they need to fix a dysfunctional culture in the minors”

Gelb discusses how the Phillies invested in Driveline Baseball to use technology for player development and the Phillies’ failure at encouraging the right people. Or in other words, “the Phillies over-invested in technology and under-invested in people” (Matt Gelb). The pitching development is non-existent while players’ weaknesses remain ignored. Players were drafted right out of high school who would need years to develop in a farm system that has consistently failed over the past decade. The Phillies started the 2021 season with the 23rd best farm system according to MLB.com and cited Spencer Howard as a bright spot for the Phillies’ future. Howard was then traded to the Rangers for Ian Kennedy and Kyle Gibson at the trade deadline. By August of this year, the Phillies dropped to 27 for the best farm system with only one prospect making the top 100 prospects list, Mick Abel at number 70.

All in all, the Phillies’ collapse over the past ten years makes sense. GM Ruben Amaro got greedy and traded away the future for another championship. Amaro ended up with a burdening payroll, retiring veterans, and an empty farm system that continues to affect the Phillies here in 2021. There is no player development at the minor league level. The farm system has continuously failed. This team has been stuck in a rebuild for its sixth straight year. The talent in the minors remains limited. The payroll continues to climb. The bullpen continues being an egregious dumpster fire. Unless serious changes are made this offseason, it will be a long time before the Phillies can contend in the NL East.

Erin Becker

Erin is a rare Phillies fan from Ohio. She has been a fan of the team since she was 5. She has her History degree from THE Ohio State University. She lives and breathes baseball whether the MLB or minor league baseball. She has aspirations to attend Graduate School.

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