I grew up less than twenty miles from City Hall in downtown Philadelphia. After a college detour in Boston, I returned to my hometown where I have now lived a ten minute subway ride from Citizens Bank Park the better part of the past decade. I’d say a good 80% of my friends and family who are into baseball would call themselves Phillies fans. So it’s probably no stunner that the Phillies having the first overall pick in next month’s MLB Draft has been a go-to topic of discussion of late. It’s not as though people are stopping me on the street frantically asking about PUK OR GROOME, but I have gotten emails and texts from people I haven’t talked to in months curious if I knew anything about which way the Phillies are leaning. Those messages back where always “off the record,” but it occurred to me that there’s really no point in being secretive. I’m not a journalist. I’m not a reporter. Integrity? What’s that? And there’s always the distinct possibility that I’m making stuff up to get sweet sweet page views on the website I haven’t made a single penny off of in eight years. So I’ll lay out a little bit of what I’ve heard and deduced from talking to some of my friends in the game. I should note that said friends are largely in low places; the highest ranking sources I can count on aren’t particularly high up on the decision-making chain. I think they are reliable contacts all the same, but I think that’s something worth keeping in mind. Here we go…
I think that the Phillies are far less enamored with AJ Puk than the national media would have you believe. While it’s true that their preference since last October has been to use their first pick on a quick-moving college starting pitcher, the idea that they zeroed in on Puk has been blown way out of proportion. While I’m not personally sure what to make of this — as far as I know, Pat Gillick’s one and only fall ball appearance was in Gainesville, and that has to mean something, right? — it does make some sense in the larger draft context. The odds of any team focusing so intently on one player so early in the process is a little hard to believe. Of course, the obvious question then becomes if not Puk then which college pitcher might they prefer? I legitimately have no idea. My own two cents says there’s no college pitcher with the kind of upside worth spending the first overall pick on. This class has lots of depth, lots of relatively high floor mid-rotation types, and a few young guys with number two starter ceilings, but you need to be greedier than that when you’re picking first. Which brings me to…
I think Jay Groome is still very much in the mix for Philadelphia at 1-1. There’s a lot to unpack with this one, but I’m 100% not buying the Phillies not having serious interest in Groome. Common sense alone says they are at least doing their due diligence, independent sources confirm real interest in the young lefty, and my own two eyes have seen high-ranking Phillies front office personnel every single time Groome has touched a mound this spring. The Phillies may not want to take a high school pitcher with their first pick, but if Groome or one of his 2016 HS peers can separate themselves from the pack between now and June then it might just force their hand.
I think a lot of the perceived uncertainty at the top of the draft is something that the Phillies are trying their best to work to their advantage, especially as it pertains to contract negotiations. I think they have been very vocal in a private public way (i.e., well-placed leaks to the industry’s biggest draft writers) about their preference for a college arm. I think that’s being done strategically. Long story short, I think the Phillies have a vested financial interest in making the number one pick as big a mystery for as long as they can. That may not be a particularly revelatory observation, but I think many are taking the reported rumors about which way the Phillies are leaning as facts rather than messaging straight from the front office.
I think this would have been a lot more controversial before so many started to turn on him these last few weeks, but I think the internet — myself included — likes Groome a lot more as a prospect than many actual scouting departments. Not one team source I spoke to was willing to claim Groome as the clear number one high school pitching prospect on their current “board.” A few said that he was in the top spot but it was still too close to call (there are no actual boards stacked up just yet, but teams are getting closer by the day to setting some meaningful albeit flexible rankings) while others said he was part of a larger mix of prospects that includes Riley Pint, Ian Anderson, Braxton Garrett, and Charles King. I’ve heard that Groome’s draft floor is much lower than many on the outside think. I think this is something to keep in mind if/when the Phillies pass on Groome; doing so is a perfectly legitimate baseball decision, even if some of the louder internet voices (again, potentially even a dope like me) disagree. There’s no consensus at the top this year, so it’s hard to make a “bad” pick in terms of process. Results…we’ll have to wait and see. I’d still take Groome if the decision was mine, but I’ve admittedly softened on the idea that it’s him or bust at this point.
I think that a disproportionate amount of attention — I’m guilty of this as well, clearly — has been spent on the pitchers the Phillies are considering at the top of the draft. Prep outfielders Blake Rutherford (a favorite of some of the older brass) and Mickey Moniak (for those who want a do-over of 2010 when Christian Yelich was taken before they had their shot at him) are both very much in play for the top spot while college outfielders Kyle Lewis and Corey Ray are long shots at best. The two high school guys are in the midst of a huge week for them as certain members of the Phillies brass — perhaps a former manager known for his ability to identify and develop hitters — are getting some extended up close and personal looks. Interestingly enough, I’ve heard no buzz — like, seriously none at all — about Delvin Perez. Could be that he’s far enough off the radar that his name doesn’t even realistically come up. Could be that the Phillies are running the ultimate smokescreen. Odd to not hear his name come up at all, though.
I think the possibility of an underslot first overall pick out of left field (though likely not literally a left fielder…) is real. Zack Collins is a name that came up more than once to help get this plan rolling. High school prospects Josh Lowe (Almaraz Georgia connection) and Nolan Jones (fair amount of Phillies heat throughout the spring and very strategic in their deployment) were also mentioned. My personal take here is that I’m more excited about the players mentioned — all guys who should be in the 1-1 mix, but aren’t for whatever reason — than the strategy behind it. My hunch is that take is likely the opposite view of many Phillies fans, an endearingly anxious bunch when it comes to the draft. I’d generally like the money saving strategy (the more lottery tickets the better), but for such a plan to work you need overslot guys to pay later. That’s almost impossible to predict in real time. It’s a great approach in theory, but far too risky a strategy in practice. I don’t think the first overall pick in a year like this is the time to play games. Get the best guy and go from there.
I think in thirty days in beautiful Secaucus, the Phillies are most likely to take Blake Rutherford with the first overall pick than any other player. I think I’d put his odds at 30%, Moniak’s at 20%, Puk’s at 15%, Groome’s at 10%, and the field at 25%. I think I’m not at all confident about those predictions, but they’re the best I’ve got.