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Making the Grade
Peter Gammons
July 23, 1990
FROM A TO AA TO AAA, THE TRAIL THROUGH THE MINORS IS TORTUOUS, AND THE ODDS ON GETTING TO THE MAJORS ARE LONG
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July 23, 1990

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

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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.

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.

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