ALLENTOWN — Mark Leiter Jr. remembers his first season in the Phillies organization well. He arrived in 2013 as a 22nd-round pick out of the New Jersey Institute of Technology and noticed that the Phillies’ minor-league system was not exactly stocked with pitching prospects.
He counted two: Jesse Biddle and Adam Morgan.
Other names were on the various prospect lists, but guys like Shane Watson and Mitch Gueller were simply high draft picks who had done nothing to earn top-prospect consideration. Guys like Ethan Martin and Phillippe Aumont, meanwhile, were trade acquisitions who never consistently excelled in the minor leagues, let alone the big leagues.
Things are different now.
“Over the course of time since I’ve been here, you can see just how good our farm system has become,” Leiter said before triple-A Lehigh Valley’s game Monday against Rochester. “You see a lot of guys from our system who have made improvements and then the trades we have made have brought other guys in, too.”
Leiter said the culture of the Phillies’ farm system started changing in 2015 when all but two of the organization’s minor-league affiliates had winning records. A year later, the Phillies’ affiliates had the best cumulative record in baseball and the list of pitching prospects had significantly grown. Leiter, despite his low draft selection from a little-known baseball school, became one of them.
He gives a lot of credit to the pitching instructors throughout the organization.
“As a group, we started clicking and we pushed each other and competed against each other, but all with the same goal,” Leiter said. “You could see the success up and down. I think when you start building that culture at a young age, you’re teaching guys how to win. When you don’t know anything but winning and success, when guys get to the big leagues they’re ready to contribute to winning baseball.”
Joe Jordan’s first season as the Phillies’ director of player personnel was 2012, the year before Leiter was drafted. And he, too, sees more pitching depth than ever before in the Phillies’ system.
“No question about it,” Jordan said. “I think it’s definitely true at double A and triple A, and we’re using our imagination to make it work the best we can.”
The Phillies have already received major lifts from guys who opened this season in the minors. The headliner, of course, has been Seranthony Dominquez, who began the year at double-A Reading and now is arguably the Phillies’ best bullpen piece. Zach Eflin’s three starts since replacing Ben Lively in the rotation have also been invaluable.
Leiter, 27, is an early-season victim of the Phillies’ improved depth. He was slated to be an integral part of the pitching staff out of spring training, but a flexor strain in his arm sent him to the disabled list. Upon his return, he was optioned to Lehigh Valley.
Jordan knows that is tough on Leiter, but the farm director has advice for any pitcher who might go back and forth between Allentown or Reading and Philadelphia this season.
“Mark was on the DL and it’s not hurting him to come down here and get built up and get ready to go back up and help our major-league club, which we expect him to do,” Jordan said. “For the guys in Allentown and the guys in Reading, their focus should be on their team where they are at. That’s how they have to approach it.
“They have to take care of their own business because sometimes you have to wait a long time for an opportunity and sometimes it comes just because an injury or something else happens real fast and you have to be the one pitching well. If you’re not, you’re not going to get the call and get your major-league opportunity.”
There might only be 13 pitchers on the big-league staff at a time, but Jordan believes the staff extends well beyond that and he said the Phillies talk about that depth all the time.
“We have a lot of options,” he said. “To say it’s 16 or 17 guys, it’s every bit of that and more. We have help. It’s just about when something opens up, and we can’t control that part.”
Seven pitchers on the Lehigh Valley roster are also on the 40-man roster and all of them have pitched in the big leagues at some point. Three IronPigs pitchers — Enyel De Los Santos (1.39 ERA in eight starts), Brandon Leibrandt (13 hits and four walks in 27 scoreless innings) and Cole Irvin (4-1, 2.81 ERA in eight starts) have been dominating in the International League this season and are not yet on the 40-man roster.
“It’s a long season and [the big-league club] is going to need help, a lot of help between now and September and October,” Jordan said. “We have help and we just have to keep them ready.”