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Making the Grade

July 23, 1990
July 23, 1990

Table of Contents
July 23, 1990

On The Scene
Books
Design
Minor Miracle
Making The Grade
Medicine Hat
Jamie Nelson
Joe Buzas
Toledo Mud Hens
Point After
Departments

Making the Grade

FROM A TO AA TO AAA, THE TRAIL THROUGH THE MINORS IS TORTUOUS, AND THE ODDS ON GETTING TO THE MAJORS ARE LONG

It was June 1 in Philadelphia, and the New York Mets were in town for the weekend. For the Phillies, a consensus preseason pick for the National League East cellar who now found themselves in second place, it was the biggest series of the young season. But the members of the Phils' executive staff had things on their minds other than beating the Mets. The amateur draft was three days away, and Philadelphia had the third pick.

This is an article from the July 23, 1990 issue Original Layout

Lee Thomas, the Phillies' vice-president and general manager, arrived at Veterans Stadium before 9 a.m., when the scouting department would convene a predraft meeting. Scouting director Jay Hankins had brought his six top national scouts to Philadelphia for the draft, and this morning they would sift through thousands of reports on amateur players, organizing the material so that when the Phillies' turn came up in Round 1—and in the 50-odd rounds to follow—the brass would know, with confidence, whom to choose. "We can't make a mistake with this high a pick," Thomas said.

The staff's discussion centered on two players: a big, slugging infielder from the University of Iowa named Tim Costo and a talented high school catcher from Westlake, Calif., named Mike Lieberthal. Thomas, Hankins and farm director Del Unser agreed that the organization's biggest need was catching. But they also agreed that because they had taken a 17-year-old outfielder (Jeff Jackson) with the fourth pick last year, they would like to get a college player, someone who figured to get to the big leagues faster than a high school kid would.

At eleven, Thomas left the meeting and walked into his office with a sheet of paper in his hand. " 'Best outing of the year for DeJesus,' " he said, reading from a report on the Phillies' Triple A club in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa., filed by manager Bill Dancy after the game the night before. Dancy, like each skipper in the Philadelphia farm system, sends a report to the front office following each game. " 'Shutout into the ninth. Hit 95 with his fastball, 88 with his slider,' " Thomas continued to read. "One or two more outings like that, and he'll be here." Jose DeJesus is a 25-year-old pitcher acquired from the Royals during spring training for infielder Steve Jeltz. Said Thomas, "He's one of the three guys there who fit the description of a number 1 or 2 starter. In my position, I watch DeJesus, [Jason] Grimsley and [Chuck] Malone almost as carefully as I do the guys here with the Phillies." (Eleven days later, Thomas would bring DeJesus up to Philadelphia, where he has since gone 1-2.)

It has been two years since Phils owner Bill Giles hired Thomas, then the farm director of the St. Louis Cardinals, to rebuild the Philadelphia organization. When Thomas arrived in June 1988, he inherited a last-place team with a high payroll and a farm system with little to boast about.

"To do the job properly, I wanted control of scouting and development," says Thomas. "The consistent development of talent is the only way one can survive in the free agent market. If you're always dependent on going out and buying someone else's players, you'll never build a solid franchise. What we do on the major league level in terms of trades is the easy, cosmetic, short-term part of the job. The rest takes at least five or six years."

The success of Thomas's approach depends first, of course, on finding top talent. "Scouts are the most important people in an organization," says Thomas, who employs 30 scouts in the Phillie system. "No ifs, no buts. If you don't find players, you don't win, because you can't make a Mike Schmidt out of a...well...." Thomas won't say it, but you can read his mind: You can't make a Mike Schmidt out of a Steve Jeltz.

On draft day, June 4, with two years of rebuilding under his belt and the number 3 pick in his hand, Thomas needed to pluck a Schmidt, not a Jeltz. Along with his scouting staff, he decided to forgo his desire for a more experienced player and choose the 18-year-old Lieberthal. (Costo was taken with the number 8 pick by the Cleveland Indians.) Lieberthal was signed to a one-year contract, given a $231,000 signing bonus and sent to the Phils' rookie league club, the Martinsville (Va.) Phillies of the Appalachian League, where, like all of his teammates, he was salaried at $850 a month. There he began his climb up the long ladder of the minor leagues.

It will be a precarious ascent for Lieberthal and a costly one for Philadelphia. A major league club provides the bulk of the funds for its minor league affiliates. "If you can't afford to spend the money to scout right, sign your draft choices and run your farm system, you don't have much of a chance," says Thomas. All told, it costs the Phillies about $4 million a year to operate their seven-team minor league system and $2 million to operate their scouting department. If it takes Lieberthal five years to reach Philadelphia, the Phillies will have spent somewhere around $1 million to get him there. And that would be considered a highly successful investment. Most prospects, of course, never pay off at the big league level. The Phils drafted 56 players along with Lieberthal between June 4 and June 6; of those, perhaps three will ultimately play in the majors.

Lieberthal's stop in Martinsville will be relatively brief. The Appalachian League is one of four rookie leagues that begin play in June and end in September. Each major league club operates one or two rookie league teams to provide early basic instruction. Lieberthal and his teammates will play 76 games over the summer, trying to get acclimated to the demands, both physical and mental, of the job of being professional baseball players.

"The first summer is to get a kid used to being away from home and to initiate the professionalization process," says Boston Red Sox farm director Ed Kenney. "Most kids have never been away from their families. They've all been used to success. Most of them have never used a wooden bat. We don't look at a kid's statistics his first summer."

More important than the first professional summer is the fall instructional program. In early September, Lieberthal will report to the Phillies training complex in Clearwater, Fla., and, along with 30 or 40 of the organization's more promising youngsters, will spend eight weeks working with instructors from the Philadelphia organization. Some clubs use the instructional leagues only for first-or second-year professionals. "That's the ideal," says Baltimore Oriole player-personnel director Doug Melvin. "However, some clubs bring veteran Triple A players down and try to win. That's crazy."

In Clearwater, the Phillies will be trying to find out what kind of a prospect they have in Lieberthal. If the young catcher struggles, Unser, the farm director, will talk to Hankins, the scouting director, in order to get some ideas on unlocking the kid's talent. Scouting directors often ask the scout who most closely followed a player before he was drafted to give the kid a call to see if the scout can help out. Says Oakland A's minor league coordinator Karl Kuehl, "This is a human game, and where one kid may rush on through, another takes more time, for a myriad of reasons."

The development process is far different for a player drafted out of high school than for one drafted out of college. "With the college kid, what you see is what you get in most cases," says Boston scout Joe Stephenson. "The physical part of the development has already taken place." If a player comes from a big-time college program, he might start as high as Double A.

Next March, Lieberthal will report to his first spring training camp, in Clearwater, and then will make his first step in the A-AA-AAA progression. The Class A leagues vary widely in quality of play. The Florida State, California and Carolina leagues are far more advanced, for instance, than the South Atlantic and Midwest leagues. In most cases, each organization has three Class A teams and likes to have a low A and a high A affiliate among them. Lieberthal, for instance, could play for Spartanburg, S.C., of the South Atlantic League in 1991 and then begin the '92 season with Clearwater of the Florida State League.

If Lieberthal develops as the Phillies hope, he will reach their Double A club in Reading, Pa., in the Eastern League by 1993. At that level his salary will rise to $1,300 a month, and the scrutiny will be much more intense. "Double A is the level where we seem to separate the prospects from the rest," says Atlanta Braves scout Paul Ricciarini. "Double A is the litmus test. You have kids coming in from three different A clubs onto one Double A team, like a road merging from three lanes to one. In A ball, a kid's playing against the equivalent of college freshmen and sophomores. In Double A, they're seniors. You get kids who can't handle the better competition. You get others who try too hard and get messed up. Double A is where you start assessing prospects, because now the jump often comes from Double A to the majors."

Triple A is no longer a developmental level. "The Triple A teams have become moneymakers, so the owners want to win," says Detroit Tigers general manager Bill Lajoie. "They want a lot of veteran players there. Check the average age of the Triple A players." (On Opening Day this season, the average Triple A pitcher was 27.7 years old.) "Because talent is so thin," says Ricciarini, "the good players tend to blow right on by Triple A, leaving most of the Triple A teams with fringe veterans who are interchangeable with the 23rd, 24th and 25th men on major league rosters." If Lieberthal is on the fast track, he may not even stop over in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Years ago, players were thrown into the minor league system and allowed to play their way to the big leagues. "It was a Darwinian thing," says Thomas. "But each major league team had 20 farm clubs then, and players were forced to claw their way upward. Now we have only five to seven minor league teams apiece, and the emphasis is on teaching." But there is a fine line between too much coaching and too little. "Kids have to learn how to do things for themselves," says Red Sox scouting director Eddie Kasko. "They're going to fail in the majors at some point, so they should be allowed to fail in the minors, without the spotlight, then learn to overcome failure."

Today's tendency to rush players into the majors sometimes results in what New York Yankee pitching coach Billy Connors calls "the quick blowout." Says Connors, "A kid gets into the majors before he's ready, then it takes a couple of years back in the minors for him to recover. That's one reason you see so many released pitchers [more than 20% of current major league pitchers were released at some point in their careers]. They're released before their time because they were rushed before their time." Toronto Blue Jay scout Gordon Lakey says, "The same thing is true with catchers. Any kid who looks like he can catch and throw is rushed to the majors, and if he doesn't make it right away, he's discarded."

This is the dilemma that faces Lieberthal and the Phillies. If, in his third year, Lieberthal shows he can catch and throw well and can hit at all, he could be on the express train to Philadelphia. "The wrong acceleration could ruin him," says Thomas. "Hopefully, by then we'll know Mike well enough to gauge what he can and cannot handle. Drafting a high school kid is a long-term proposition."

And where does Thomas guess that Lieberthal will be in, say, the summer of '94? "He could be in Clearwater, or he could be in Philly," says Thomas, shrugging. "There is no genius in the baseball business."

PHOTOJOHN IACONOAS LIEBERTHAL (LEFT) DEVELOPS, UNSER AND THOMAS (ABOVE) WILL TAKE NOTEPHOTOAL TIELEMANS[See caption above.]PHOTOAL TIELEMANSSOME HAVE MADE THE BIG LEAP FROM DOUBLE A TO PHILLY, BUT MOST DON'TPHOTOJOHN IACONOIN ROOKIE LEAGUE BALL, LIEBERTHAL IS ALREADY LEARNING HARD LESSONS

Farm Report: HOW THEY RATE

Some farms are more fertile than others. Here are Peter Gammons's evaluations of the best and worst farm systems:

AMERICAN LEAGUE

The Best

1. Toronto.
The Blue Jays built a powerhouse that ultimately disappointed from 1985 to '87; now they have a nearly all-new team with Fred McGriff, Kelly Gruber, John Olerud, et al. The Jays scout hard, and they're the best in the business at spotting talent in other systems—they stole McGriff, Gruber, George Bell and Tom Henke from rival clubs. A weakness: development of pitching.

2. Oakland.
A state-of-the-art organization that feeds on data. The well-informed A's have a good scouting department, but the heart of their system is the excellent minor league teaching, supervised by minor league coordinator Karl Kuehl.

3. Boston.
Some say the Red Sox system merely rolls the balls out and lets the kids play. But Boston continues to produce good players because of its superb veteran scouts and because the organization is very patient with young talent.

The Worst

1. Cleveland.
Too many front-office changes over too many years. What the Indians need is a commitment from their ownership and the time to make it work.

2. New York.
The Yankee organization used to have good minor league people. But now those guys, the Stump Merrills and the Buck Showalters, are working in Yankee Stadium, and the new, inexperienced instructors only contribute to the disorder in one of the worst-run businesses in America.

3. Baltimore.
Player-personnel director Doug Melvin is trying to restore this organization to its former luster after it lost its top scouts by being cheap. No system in the league has developed fewer current major leaguers.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

The Best

1. Montreal.
The current Expos have six rookies on their big league roster and Montreal's system is still loaded—lefthanded pitcher Brian Barnes, shortstop Wilfredo Cordero and catcher Greg Colbrunn, to name just a few.

2. New York.
Odd draft choices slowed the Mets' developmental express—Triple A Tidewater is virtually bare. But New York has its lower minors well stocked and has excellent coordination of instruction.

3. St. Louis.
Like the Red Sox, the Cardinals have been consistent generators of talent. The Cards have been keen with their top draft selections, and their minor league instruction is among the best in baseball.

The Worst

1. Houston.
Assistant G.M. Bob Watson is trying to repair the system, and the Astros now appear to have several good prospects down below (shortstop Andujar Cedeno, righthanded pitchers Jeff Juden and Darryl Kile). But no club in the league has produced fewer current big leaguers.

2. San Diego.
Key people who once developed so much talent for the Padres have moved on to other clubs (Sandy Johnson to Texas, Luis Rosa to the Cubs). This system relies on too many young scouts.

3. Cincinnati.
A lot of scouting talent left the Reds when owner Marge Schott decided that scouts weren't important, just overpaid. So Cincinnati had better win with this current club, because general manager Bob Quinn has a long row to hoe in recultivating this farm.