Frank Wren still remembers the phone call — and the enthusiasm in the voice on the other end.
"Wait till you see this kid!"
Johnny Almaraz didn't have to say anything more. He had set out on another trip to a far-flung location in search of a future major leaguer, and Wren just knew by his intonation that he had been successful. In the previous few years, Almaraz had turned up pitchers Julio Teheran from Colombia and Randall Delgado from Panama, Venezuelan shortstop Jose Peraza, and Panamanian catcher Christian Bethancourt. At his recommendation, the Atlanta Braves signed them all despite a limited budget for international amateurs.
This time, Almaraz was calling from Curacao after watching a speedy infielder named Ozhaino Albies — Ozzie for short. The Braves signed Albies for $350,000 on July 2, 2013, one year before plucking another Almaraz find, outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., out of Venezuela for only $100,000.
"To me," said Wren, the Braves' general manager at the time, "It's one of the best scouting jobs in baseball over the last half-dozen years."
Indeed, Almaraz's work over eight years, initially as director of Latin American operations and later as international scouting director, makes him as responsible as anybody for the Braves' rise from 95-, 93- and 90-loss seasons to a surprise contender for the National League East title.
Now it's time for him to make his mark on the Phillies.
Almaraz, 52, is about to take center stage again as baseball's annual amateur draft gets underway Monday. The Phillies will make the third overall pick. It's the fourth year in a row in which they have chosen in the top 10, and based on their success at the big-league level so far this season, it might be the last for a while. And for the fourth consecutive season, Almaraz will be running their draft room in his role as amateur scouting director.
The last three years have not yet borne fruit. Infielder Scott Kingery, a second-round pick (48th overall) in 2015, is the lone Phillies draftee from the last three years to reach the big leagues. By itself, that's hardly an indication that the Phillies have drafted poorly under Almaraz. No team has had more than three players from any of the last three drafts reach the majors yet, and most scouts contend a draft class can't be accurately evaluated for at least five years.
>>READ MORE: Six prospects the Phillies could pick at No. 3
But the Phillies had the 10th, first, and eighth overall picks in the last three drafts, and each of those selections — outfielders Cornelius Randolph in 2015, Mickey Moniak in 2016, and Adam Haseley in 2017 — has struggled at the double-A level or below. It's fair to begin wondering if Almaraz has swung and missed three times.
"A lot of people expect that these things happen overnight. They don't. There's a process," Almaraz said in a wide-ranging phone interview last week. "Every player struggles. Everybody has different timelines."
Almaraz paused to consider the career trajectories of two of the better hitters drafted during his 16-year tenure with the Cincinnati Reds. Jay Bruce, he noted, had 1,512 plate appearances in the minors before making his big-league debut in 2008. Joey Votto had 3,037 plate appearances before beginning what may wind up as a Hall of Fame career.
The point, Almaraz contends, is that it takes time. For every Bryce Harper, who reached the majors in the blink of an eye, there are dozens of first rounders who fail in the minor leagues before they have success in the majors. And make no mistake, Randolph, Moniak, and Haseley have experienced their share of failure.
Randolph, drafted out of a Georgia high school, was batting .254 with 17 homers and a .719 OPS in 1,192 minor-league plate appearances through Wednesday, including a .195 average and .528 OPS this season at double-A Reading. Moniak, a first overall pick out of high school in San Diego, was batting .248 with six homers and a .638 OPS through 887 plate appearances and had not yet homered in 184 plate appearances through Wednesday at high-A Clearwater. Haseley, plucked from the University of Virginia, rode a recent hot streak to a .275 average, three homers, 34 strikeouts, eight walks and a .695 OPS for Clearwater.
"I'm not terribly concerned," general manager Matt Klentak said recently. "Obviously we'd like them to get off to better starts. We're going to stick with those guys and take our chances with them."
Almaraz defended the picks — and the process behind them — by noting the Phillies have been aggressive in their assignments for all three outfielders. Randolph, who turned 21 Saturday, and Moniak, 20, are among the youngest players in their respective leagues. That's by design, with the Phillies preferring to challenge them against older competition.
"We believe in their offensive ability," Almaraz said. "They are young. They are going to be good when it is time for them to be good. I don't think they need to be rushed. They will be ready when they're ready."
The Phillies also drafted Moniak, in part, because they could sign him for $6.1 million, $3 million less than the bonus pool allotment for the No. 1 overall pick. The savings enabled them to spend big to sign righthander Kevin Gowdy and infielder Cole Stobbe, their second- and third-round picks in 2016. Gowdy is recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery.
But Almaraz is quick to remind that a draft consists of 40 rounds, not one or two. And when he reviews the last three years, he cites lefthanders JoJo Romero (fourth round, 2016) and Cole Irvin (fifth round, 2016) as examples of players who already have reached the double-A and triple-A levels. Almaraz also speaks with pride about lefthanders Nick Fanti and Will Stewart, 31st- and 20th-round picks, respectively, in 2015 who have had success at low-A Lakewood. Stewart is 5-0 with a 1.23 ERA in nine starts this season.
"Those are examples of what a draft needs to produce," Almaraz said. "Of course you have the guys up top. They're talented and it takes time for them, too. But if you're good early, maybe a little late, you're going to have a successful organization. That's how we approach things. We draft [round] one through 40 with intent."
Almaraz's best trait? He sees ability in players where other scouts might see weaknesses, according to Phillies amateur scout Joey Davis.
"The good thing about Johnny is he gives the scouts freedom to be aggressive and to like players," said Davis, who drafted Rhys Hoskins in the fifth round in 2014 under former scouting director Marti Wolever. "It's easy for a scout to say, 'This guy can't do this, can't do that.' The good scouts find a way to say, 'There's a role for this guy.' That's the biggest thing I've learned from him. He likes players."
Almaraz left the Braves once Wren was fired late in the 2014 season. Then-Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., at the recommendation of assistant GM Benny Looper, promptly hired Almaraz and put him in charge of the amateur scouting department at a time when the Phils were beginning a full-scale rebuilding that would undoubtedly yield top-10 picks.
Wren couldn't think of a better person for the job.
"Johnny did so much with so little [with the Braves]," Wren said. "Resource-wise, we were in the bottom five and typically in the bottom two or three in terms of [international] signing bonus budget. For him to come up with the type of quality major-league players he did based on that limited budget was very impressive. I just trusted Johnny's judgment so well."
In other words, Almaraz left no stone unturned in his pursuit of talent. The Phillies are counting on his being able to find a few more gems under those stones this year.
With few exceptions, it takes several years for players to advance from draft day to the majors. Here is a team-by-team look at the players from the last three drafts who have made their major-league debuts and the year they were drafted. Players who have amassed a career WAR greater than 0.5, as calculated by baseball-reference.com, are listed in bold.
Astros: 1 (Alex Bregman-2015)
Blue Jays: 0
Braves: 2 (Mike Soroka, A.J. Minter-2015)
Cardinals: 3 (Harrison Bader, Jordan Hicks, Paul DeJong-2015)
Cubs: 1 (Ian Happ-2015)
Diamondbacks: 1 (Dansby Swanson-2015)
Dodgers: 2 (Walker Buehler, Willie Calhoun-2015)
Giants: 1 (Andrew Suarez-2015)
Mariners: 1 (Andrew Moore-2015)
Mets: 1 (P.J. Conlon-2015)
Nationals: 2 (Andrew Stevenson, Koda Glover-2015)
Orioles: 1 (Austin Hays-2016)
Padres: 3 (Phil Maton-2015; Eric Lauer, Joey Lucchesi-2016)
Phillies: 1 (Scott Kingery-2015)
Pirates: 1 (John Bormann-2015)
Red Sox: 3 (Andrew Benintendi, Ben Taylor, Bobby Poyner-2015)
Reds: 1 (Tanner Rainey-2015)
White Sox: 1 (Carson Fulmer-2015)