SECAUCUS, N.J. -- The last five years have been mostly barren ones for the Phillies. Once perennial contenders, they have not had a winning record since 2011. In the midst of that, their farm system languished too.
But the last few months have been kind for the organization. The end of the Ruben Amaro Jr. era finally brought prospects to restock for the long haul. And after Amaro was fired last fall, Matt Klentak, the new general manager, was charged with turning around the moribund franchise.
Thursday night provided the Phillies the latest opportunity to build a new foundation. After a 63-win season last year, they held the first overall pick in the Major League Baseball Draft. At 7:12 p.m., they selected Mickey Moniak, an 18-year-old center fielder from La Costa Canyon High School (Ca.).
"This is a middle of the field player,” Klentak said. The way baseball is today that was a major factor. He's athletic and he can really hit.”
The Phillies invested heavily in scouting Moniak. They had a member of their organization at every one of his games and Klentak saw him in person. Johnny Almaraz, the team’s scouting director, saw a player who could eventually hit more than 20 home runs a year and play Gold Glove defense. His acumen in center field, Almarez said, is so high that he believes Moniak could play there in the majors right now.
Still, it took time for Moniak to separate himself from the pack and leap to the top of the draft. The Phillies began to identify him as the possible first pick last month. But they also used most of their allotted time to make their selection Thursday night for a reason, Klentak said and noting multiple factors determined the decision.
Moniak, who has drawn comparisons to former All-Star Steve Finley, could be a linchpin of the next generation of Phillies stars. Their only other No. 1 pick in franchise history was Pat Burrell in 1998.
Burrell eventually was a part of the 2008 World Series winning team, with a nucleus that was built on homegrown talent. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels were all Phillies draft picks. Now, the Phillies are in the position to wait again and hope they can rebuild from the bottom.
“It's going to take time,” Ed Wade, a special assistant of baseball operations for the club and its former general manager who drafted those past stalwarts, said. “I don't think anybody at this stage believes that the club that's on the field right now is necessarily is going to be the one that could become the core nucleus for years and years. But there's certain key elements in place right now that could give a lot of people reason to be optimistic about what the future holds if the younger guys come on in the system and if events like tonight pay off then it could happen sooner than later.”
High school talents, like Moniak, was popular at the top of the draft. Ian Anderson, a right-handed pitcher from New York, went third overall to the Braves. Riley Pint, a right-hander from Kansas, went fourth to the Rockies. Nick Senzel, a third baseman from the University of Tennessee, went second to the Reds.
Anderson was the first player taken who watched the draft from the MLB Network studio here.
“It was better than expected,” he said. “I was nervous. I was shaking I was so excited. It was great.”
A.J. Puk was the first college pitcher taken, going sixth overall to the Athletics.
“A lefty out of Florida that I love everything about,” Pedro Martinez said on MLB Network.
“This kid has no ceiling.”
Just as conspicuous was the player who wasn't taken in the top-10. Jason Groome, the 17-year-old lefty from Barnegat (NJ) High School was once projected to be the top overall pick in the draft. With a fastball that sat in the low-to-mid 90’s and a knee-buckling curveball that was considered the best in the draft, Groome was once a prospect to go to his hometown Phillies.
Instead, he had to wait until the Red Sox stopped his fall with the 12th overall pick, banking that his talent will supersede the warts that let him drop to them.
“Just because people say something,” Groome said. “It doesn't mean it's going to happen.”
By the time Groome, a Red Sox fan, was drafted, he wasn’t watching the television. He overheard his name as he texted back a friend and then went wild, along with his family as they watched from his cousin’s home. And those in Groome’s inner circle believe that he could be in the majors sooner than most think.
“From a consistency, from a smoothness, from a projectability, I think Jay can be in the majors and will be in the majors by 20,” Kevin Schneider, one of Groome’s personal coaches, told USA Today.
Moniak, however, did not wait and already had a new home while Groome waited. And he thinks one skill will stand out above all others for him in Philadelphia.
"I'd say my hit tool,” Moniak said. “Who doesn't love to hit."