The Phillies open spring training next week. The team will be counting on four recent staff hires to make a difference long- and short-term. This week, we will profile all four.
The series began yesterday with Joe Dillon and continues today with the Phils’ new scouting director.
Brian Barber’s first successful taste of scouting came when he was a freshman pitcher at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Florida. An older teammate named James Damon brought his younger brother to practice one day. The kid was only in eighth grade but already Barber had him pegged.
“The first time you saw him, you knew he was going to be really good,” Barber said of young Johnny Damon. “He was an easy one. Like Bryce Harper, the first time you saw him. He was just more talented and better than everyone else.”
Barber and Damon would both eventually become first-round picks a year apart in the Major League Baseball draft, but while Damon would go on to stroke 2,769 hits and win two World Series rings in an 18-year big-league career, Barber was limited to just 26 games in the majors because of a series of arm injuries.
By spring training 2001, it became clear to Barber that his arm would not allow him to continue to pitch professionally, but the tug of the game was too strong to simply let go. He considered coaching. Someone suggested scouting and that sounded interesting. He attended scouting school in the fall of 2001, liked it, impressed the right people and by the next spring was a full-time area scout for the New York Yankees. His territory was the mid-Atlantic region and the job required frequent stops in the greater Philadelphia area.
Some 18 years later, Barber is back in Philadelphia. In the fall, the Phillies hired him to the vital position of director of amateur scouting. With the college season about to kick into gear, Barber and his staff are already on the road, full force, trying to find, well, maybe the next Johnny Damon.
“I love what I do,” Barber said. “Every day I wake up wanting to find a player that one day is going to help the Phillies.”
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Barber, 46, succeeds Johnny Almaraz, who stepped down as scouting director in September for personal family reasons. Almaraz, who presided over five drafts for the Phillies, remains with the club in a scouting/player development role.
Phillies officials interviewed candidates from inside and outside the organization before focusing on Barber, who had spent 18 seasons in the Yankees’ scouting department, eventually rising to the role of national crosschecker under highly regarded Yankees scouting boss Damon Oppenheimer. Word in baseball circles is that Phillies president Andy MacPhail, who is close with Yankees executive Jim Hendry, did a lot of homework on Barber and liked the scouting reports he received.
“It’s a tough loss for us,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “Brian was Damon’s right-hand man. We viewed him as a scouting director who just so happened to be a crosschecker. When he put his evaluations down, it was something you had to pay attention to because you knew he was going to get the player right.
“We were hopeful that he would give us a chance to keep him, but it’s one of 30 chairs and it’s a great opportunity, so I understand. Actually, I’m surprised it took so long for another team to pluck him.”
Barber said he’d previously received interest from other clubs offering advancement, but after several conversations with a number of Phillies officials, the job just felt right.
“I like this group of people first and foremost,” he said. “No matter what happens with regard to ideas and process, it’s still the people that drive an organization. That’s why this became a reality.”
There was also one other factor in Barber’s decision to leave the storied organization from the Bronx.
Deep down inside, he yearned for a chance to oversee his own draft.
He was ready.
“Damon gave me responsibility and freedom beyond what anyone could ask and I’m so grateful for that,” Barber said. “But when it came time to pick, the ultimate decision was still his – as it should be. You were part of it, but it wasn’t all the way yours. So that did have some pull. I thought one day I’d like to do that, gather all the information, get all the recommendations and make the decision. It had some pull.”
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Scouting young amateur players is an inexact science. A bit of proof lies over the bridge from Philadelphia where Mike Trout, who will go down as one of greatest players in the history of the game, was passed over by 21 teams before being selected in the first round of the 2009 draft. (The Phillies did not have a first-round pick that year.) Despite the difficulty of projecting how an 18-year-old boy will perform against the best players in the world as a 25-year-old man, scouts and scouting departments are judged on an unforgiving public scale that ranges from genius to dunce. Hit on a guy – like the Yankees with Barber championing the cause – did on Aaron Judge with the 32nd overall pick in the 2013 draft, and you’re a genius. Miss on a high pick and you’re a dunce. It’s a tough business.
The Phillies’ 2008 World Series championship team was built on a foundation of good scouting and drafting. Cole Hamels and Chase Utley were first-round picks that other clubs had questions about. (Hamels was a health question and Utley had defensive issues.) Jimmy Rollins came in the second round, Ryan Howard in the fifth and bullpen difference-maker Ryan Madson in the ninth. In subsequent years, the Phillies have not drafted nearly as well. Success in the standings, which lowered draft position, hurt. So did the loss of several high-round picks, forfeited for signing free agents. But there have also been a number of high-round whiffs. All of these factors have impacted the Phillies’ farm system (it ranks in the bottom third among major league teams, according to multiple outlets) and place in the standings.
Using the WAR statistic, Baseball America recently ranked every team’s work in a decade of drafts from 2010 to 2019. The Phillies came in at No. 26, the Yankees at No. 28.
Now, these ratings are far from final and the Phillies’ WAR number for the last decade could still improve significantly based on the evolving careers of Scott Kingery, Rhys Hoskins, Spencer Howard and Alec Bohm.
“Ultimately, we’re all judged by the number of players we’re able to produce and the impact they have once they’re in the big leagues,” Barber said.
Though Baseball America’s rankings are not perfect – heck, WAR as a stat in itself is imperfect – they do indicate that the Phils need to improve their drafts. It is key to the sustainability of the franchise because every hole cannot be filled with a $330 million signing like Harper or even a $118 million signing like Zack Wheeler.
Barber’s philosophy of drafting is to take the best player available, regardless of need at the big-league level. Like all scouts, he and his staff will place an emphasis on tools before zeroing in on baseball skill. Bat speed and power can make a hitter attractive. The ability to recognize pitches makes him even more attractive. Velocity is a key factor in a pitcher’s ability to generate swings and misses. Control and command make that power arm even more attractive.
“There is no secret sauce,” Barber said. “You break the tools down and try to build up to what the ideal big-leaguer has.”
Identifying a player’s intangibles is a difficult but hugely important part of the process.
A player’s character, competitiveness, toughness, drive, smarts and instincts – all of these fall under the baseball heading of “makeup” – are important.
“It’s definitely a point of emphasis,” Barber said. “Baseball is a hard game and we want our players to be hard.”
Analytics is another important ingredient in the sauce that Barber and his staff will use to identify prospects. The Yankees are an analytics powerhouse. The Phillies’ analytics department has grown in number and significance under general manager Matt Klentak. The impact of analytics can be seen in the Phillies’ last three first-round picks. Outfielder Adam Haseley, third baseman Bohm and shortstop Bryson Stott are all players that stood out analytically for their ability to control the strike zone.
“Analytics are part of the game now, part of the process,” Barber said. “To ignore it and say, ‘We’re scouts, we don’t worry about that.’ Those days are gone. This is information that can aid us in finding a better player and to think we won’t use it is farfetched.”
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In three months on the job, Barber has made some changes in the Phillies’ scouting operation. No one has been let go, he said, though some assignments have changed. He has made several hires, most notably David Crowson to a high-ranking national position. Crowson formerly worked for the Miami Marlins and was influential in identifying Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton and a guy named J.T. Realmuto as top draft prospects.
“He was a guy I really wanted to have and I’m happy we got him,” Barber said of Crowson.
The Phillies have the 15th overall pick in this year’s draft and you can hear the excitement in Barber’s voice as he talks about preparing for it.
“There’s no consensus at the top, no Harper or (Stephen) Strasburg,” Barber said. “But it’s a very deep draft with a lot of pitching, a lot of good arms. We’re going to be able to find velocity throughout the draft.
“Our job is hard and we’re going to be wrong sometimes. It’s the nature of the business. But hopefully, we’ll be wrong less often and right more often by going through processes we’re trying to build here because there’s no better feeling than scouting, drafting and seeing a player get to the big leagues.”
On Thursday, we profile new Phillies pitching coach Bryan Price.
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Meet new Phillies scouting boss Brian Barber, a man who can shape the teams future originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia