John Mehno has the right idea in this Beaver County Times column about the differences between the Pirates and Phillies--it's not primarily about spending, it's about building by acquiring amateur talent. But while the technique of comparing some great Phillies draft picks (Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and so on) to picks the Pirates botched at similar points in their drafts is effective for an article written with a word count for a general audience, it doesn't quite tell the whole story.
The Phillies' case is really weird. If you look at their drafts under previous GM Ed Wade (that's basically the time frame described in the Beaver County article), it's very surprising they've been so successful. Working backwards, the best player they got in 2005 was current Athletics reliever Josh Outman; they also got current Reds reliever Matt Maloney. That was it. In 2004 they got J.A. Happ in the third round, Jason Jaramillo in the second, and Lou Marson in the fourth, but they also took Greg Golson as a dubious tools pick in the first round and got nothing in the later rounds. In 2003 they had no first- or second-round pick; they got Michael Bourn and Kyle Kendrick, and that was it.
In 2002 the Phils took Cole Hamels in the first round, which was obviously a great pick, but they got absolutely nothing else. In 2001, it was Gavin Floyd in the first round and Howard in the fifth, and absolutely nothing else. In 2000, they got Utley, Taylor Buchholz and nothing else. In 1999, it was Brett Myers, Marlon Byrd and nothing else. (They also drafted Joe Saunders, but didn't sign him.)
Now, maybe this doesn't sound too noteworthy to some of you. Maybe you think that if you get one good player out of a draft, that's great, and to a certain extent that's true. In this case, the results speak for themselves. But what's odd to me about the Phillies' drafts under Wade is how incredibly thin they were. Wade seemed to get a star player and almost nothing else every year for several seasons in a row. That's strange.
To see what I mean, let's take a look at Wade's first draft for the Phillies in 1998. He took Pat Burrell with the first overall pick (a bit of a no-brainer), but he also got several moderately useful players later on, such as Jason Michaels, Geoff Geary and Nick Punto.
In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter that much if you fail to identify the next Nick Punto in your draft, but it does raise the question of why, if the Phillies are supposed to be a good example of intelligent drafting, they were able to identify so many star players but so few other future productive major leaguers.
Here's an example. In 2000 the Phillies got Utley, who single-handedly made the draft a very successful one for Philadelphia. The same year, the Pirates got Chris Young, Nate McLouth, Ian Snell, Jose Bautista and Sean Burnett. I'd say the Pirates actually did a much better job in that draft, even though it turned out worse--Dave Littlefield stupidly traded away Young a couple years later, and first-rounder Burnett's career was derailed with a ton of injuries. Drafting players who will stay healthy and helping them stay healthy involve skills, of course, and it certainly helps to not take a pitcher in the first round every year like the Pirates did. But there's luck involved too. For example, the Phillies were notably lucky that, for example, high school draftee Hamels basically made it to the majors with his elbow and shoulder intact, particularly after he missed huge chunks of his minor league career with injuries.
In 2001 the Phillies got Floyd, later sent to the White Sox in the Jim Thome trade, and Howard. That was all. Again, the Pirates had a much more robust draft, grabbing a number of moderately useful players in Zach Duke, Chris Shelton, Jeff Keppinger, Chris Duffy, Jonathan Albaladejo and Rajai Davis. (They also might have had some shot of signing 11th-rounder Stephen Drew if Littlefield, who was hired shortly after the draft, hadn't dropped the ball.) The Pirates royally messed up their first-round pick, John Van Benschoten, and that was their fault, but again, I'm not really convinced that Wade and the Phillies had a better idea of what they were doing.
Of course, Littlefield and his team started drafting in 2002, and after that all bets are off. There's no defending much of anything Littlefield did. My point, though, is that I'm not sure the Wade-era Phillies are a particularly good model here. In fact, it looks to me that they repeatedly got very lucky with about one pick each year and totally bombed the rest of their drafts under Wade, with the exceptions of 1998 and 2004. I don't mean to take anything away from the Phillies, who have generally been pretty well run since Wade left. But If there are things the Pirates can learn from this, they are the very basic points that, first, it's generally very important not to screw up first-round picks, and second, that it's important to build a core of homegrown stars. Beyond that, the Phillies' example doesn't tell us a whole lot.