Moving the Phillies Forward

As mediocrity goes, you can’t get more mediocre than 81-81. While everyone has a diagnosis for why the Phillies were so mediocre, it’s worth remembering one thing- absolutely no one predicted this. The 2018 Phillies were 80-82, an improvement from 66-96 the year before, and largely did it with improved pitching in Gabe Kapler’s first year. After adding two former NL MVP outfielders, a multi-time All-Star shortstop, arguably the best catcher in the game, and a durable and elite late-inning reliever, the Phillies weren’t expecting a one-game improvement. It was easy to expect 90 wins and an NL Wild Card. Neither happened.

When it comes to assigning blame for this season, I come unequivocally down on the side of blaming the General Manager and front office. Yes, the manager has his flaws. Yes, injuries hit this team- as they did the 100 plus win Yankees. The truth is that this team was simply not talented enough though, because of the GM. I assign blame to Matt Klentak for four specific failures:

  1. Terrible starting pitching. Taking a chance on one of Eflin, Velasquez, and Pivetta might have made sense. Rolling the dice with all three, then trotting out a busted Eickhoff, a rookie Irvin, and trying to pass off Smyly and Vargas as help was insane. Klentak simply has to stop trying to be precisely right on his “player valuations,” and get some premier talent.
  2. A punchless, inadequate bench. Among this year’s underrated disasters was the bench. Gosselin lead the team in pinch hits, despite being DFA’ed and spending a few months in AAA. Aaron Altherr played significant games here. Nick Williams didn’t work off the bench. Roman Quinn still can’t stay healthy. Andrew Knapp isn’t a great hitter. Jay Bruce and Scott Kingery had to provide most of their value as starters. And yeah, Sean Rodriguez was on the team.
  3. An old bullpen unable to pitch the way their manager wants to manage. Presumably the Phillies asked Gabe Kapler about managing a bullpen in his interview. I presume they understood he wants to play match-ups aggressively in the late innings. If they understood that relievers were going to be getting up and down a lot, making a lot of one and two out appearances, and needing to be durable enough to get up and down almost every night, then why did they give him a bunch of older relievers. Men over 35 years old can perform as relievers, but they need their rest. Robertson, Neshek, Nicasio, and Hunter all were older arms that got injured this season. Even younger guys like Seranthony, Arano, and Morgan had issues staying healthy in this system. The front office didn’t think this through.
  4. A minor league system unprepared to help. This isn’t getting enough attention on the list of failures. The Phillies raided the IronPigs early and often to plug holes. It didn’t work. The team failed to attract veteran AAA players who could help, and failed to develop much beyond Adam Haseley in terms of prospects ready to help now. Just two of Klentak’s draft choices over the first four years have played for the team. That’s pretty alarming.

What do I then make of the debate over Gabe Kapler’s future? I largely don’t care. I do come down on the side of firing both he and pitching coach Chris Young, mostly because neither provided much positive. Kapler hired poor hitting and pitching coaches, projected his laid back persona onto a team that needed more accountability, and refused to adjust in areas where his philosophies failed. I’m not really concerned that his press conferences were abrasive to our fanbase, but I am concerned by his unwillingness to play any old-school, situational baseball. Ultimately though, I blame Kapler less than the front office for this team’s failures. I’m less interested in firing him than Klentak. He may even be this generation’s Terry Francona that stinks here and figures it out elsewhere. I don’t dislike the guy. I’d mostly fire him because I don’t think he’s great at this right now, and I think there are better available options on the market, not because I think he’s the top thing ailing our team.

Looking ahead to the off-season, I have my wishlist in mind for what they need on the field too. I’m looking for:

  • Go for some big splashes. Cole, Rendon, and Strasburg (if he opts out) are all worth the bid. Nothing is hurt by succeeding here. But more directly…
  • Two starting pitchers. At least one needs to be a legit number two type, and the other should be at least a three. I’d be in on the Bumgarner, Hamels, Wheeler market, in addition to the pitchers above. I’d also be in on the Ray, Minor, Boyd trade market.
  • At least two late-inning relievers. And yes, there should be some guys below 35 here. The Phillies should even consider forking out some closer market money on San Francisco’s Smith.
  • Either a starting center fielder or a very solid fourth outfielder. I’m thinking you either make Adam Haseley your fourth outfielder for now by grabbing a big splash in center, or you come home with a Cameron Maybin type of fourth outfielder type that you don’t fear starting sometimes. I’m not opposed to re-signing Dickerson and giving up a little defense with him and McCutchen in left and center, with Haseley spelling their off days and late innings, but I don’t find it realistic.
  • An upgrade utility infielder. I have no problem with Brad Miller being back, but upgrade on Sean Rodriguez. If it’s Kingery playing this role because you signs third baseman and don’t dump Cesar at second, I’m fine, but upgrade here.

I think we’re walking into next season with three starters (Nola, Arrieta, Eflin), at least six or seven starting positions, and three of the five bench spots (Grullon, Miller, and Bruce) filled in-house. That’s it bad. My big worry though is the Phillies will fire Kapler, and allow Klentak to repeat last off-season where he whiffs on filling out a full roster because he’s afraid to spend some veteran money on pitchers and bench pieces. I’m fine with firing people, I just wish we were talking about the right people. The failures of 2019 need to be assigned to stubbornness by the front office to make the last one or two moves needed. Only a change in attitude and philosophy can take us to the playoffs in 2020.

Advertisements

Yay for Impeachment! Or Not…

For the fourth time in American history, the President of the United States will face a formal impeachment proceeding. With this being our 45th President, that is just shy of 10% of our Presidencies. With this being the third time in the last fifty years we’re going through this, it’s safe to bet we’ll see a fifth in our lifetime. This is rare, but it’s increasingly less rare. In this case, one could argue it felt nothing less than inevitable.

To be fair to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, I think she tried hard not to do this. I think she knows what a disaster it will probably be. I am less than certain frankly that Trump didn’t try to get to this point, for varying reasons. It felt inevitable though because in the “blue” House Districts that Democrats held before 2018, impeachment is popular. For similar reasons in “red” Senate seats, it’s doomed to fail. Pelosi tried to hold back the tide in her “blue” seats to protect the 40 freshmen House members elected in swing districts last year. Politics would not allow that.

So what is the process? What’s the likely outcome? What is the actual political fallout. Let’s observe.

Trust the Process?

The House leadership intends to begin this process in six separate committees. In other words, the House Judiciary, Intelligence, Financial Services, Ways and Means, Government Oversight, and Foreign Affairs Committees will begin this process with formal hearings investigating parts of Trump’s Presidency. Presumably at the conclusion of their investigations, they will either recommend articles of impeachment, or not. Speaker Pelosi chose to do this, rather than hold an initial House vote to open the inquiry, and send it straight to the Judiciary Committee (the process under Nixon and Clinton).

From there, this will follow normal process. The Judiciary Committee would then debate and vote on the articles before them. The assumption is they will pass. Then those articles of impeachment would go to the full House, who would vote on whether to impeach (or as a legal process matter, essentially indict) the President. If a majority, or 218 members vote to impeach, President Trump would join Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson as the only Presidents ever impeached. Neither of them was convicted, and neither was penalized at all in office. The other President to face impeachment of course was Richard Nixon, who resigned when it was clear he would be impeached. It’s almost certain Donald Trump will not resign.

The next step is presumably a Senate trial. Assuming one is held (it’s not entirely clear that they have to), the trial’s rules will be set by the Senate itself. The Senate President is of course Vice-President Pence. The man in charge of the Senate is Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will literally decide the rules of the trial. Chief Justice John Roberts would then serve as the judge enforcing the rules. There must be 67 Senators voting to convict the President and remove him from office, or he is considered acquitted in this process. There are current 47 Democrats in the Senate, so any vote to convict must include 20 Republicans.

Impeaching and removing a President is really hard. That’s why it’s never happened. It’s meant to be a consensus process, where all parties buy in. That’s really hard to do in divided government.

What’s the Likely Outcome?

By virtually any read, President Trump will eventually win this process. Whether that happens in the House committees, the full House, or the Senate, the outcome is virtually assured. Unlike Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, the President’s own party really isn’t interested in hurting him. Unlike Nixon’s process, there doesn’t appear to be any senior Republicans feeling politically threatened by the process. This begins under similar conditions to Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

So when will this fail? The furthest possibility is a Senate trial. For Trump to be convicted, it would seem that all 47 Democrats and 20 Republicans, or some similar math is needed. This means Doug Jones, Jon Tester, and Joe Manchin, all dark “red” state Democrats, would have to vote to convict, let alone Democrats in swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Hampshire, Virginia, Minnesota, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado (to name some), have to vote to convict. Then you need Republicans. The only one sounding reasonable today was Mitt Romney, who represents Utah, so don’t get hopeful. The obvious pressure points are Collins and Gardner, both of whom may benefit from voting to convict, but aren’t showing any budge. Senators Tillis, Ernst, and McSally may move if Trump falls further in the polls, but so far they’re not. Longer shots include Toomey, Portman, Murkowski, Rubio, Daines, Burr, and Johnson. I went as far as possible here politically, and your count is 13. There’s virtually no way Democrats even do this well, but they’d need 7 more votes. Because Republicans know that, they’ll hang together.

It may feel like Trump being impeached in the House is a done deal at this point, as 218 members now support an inquiry- but an inquiry isn’t impeachment yet. There are 235 Democrats, 198 Republicans, 1 Independent, and a vacancy in the House right now. This essentially gives Democrats 236 votes to start with, since the Independent left the GOP over impeachment. This means Democrats can lose 18 votes and still impeach Trump on just Democratic votes. That means impeachment is pretty likely. There are 40 freshmen representing formerly Republican seats though. This means that if Democrats can’t move the needle on impeachment polling, it may not be able to pass the House. It’s likely to pass, but it’s no lock.

I’d bet on articles of impeachment passing the House Judiciary though. The only potential pitfall is that six investigating committees is too many, but that’s not likely to matter. Don’t bet on this to die fast, but bet on it to die, basically.

What’s the Politics?

I’ll just go on record and say that this is maybe the only time I’ve disagreed with Nancy Pelosi’s judgment in this Congress. Impeachment starts out polling terrible, that’s not likely to change, and the polling is probably even worse in the swing districts. Pelosi had no choice though. A majority of the House wanted this inquiry, largely thanks to jitters among moderates who fear primaries (thanks, Justice Dems). Once those politics changed, Pelosi pretty much had to do this. And to be even more fair, the President of the United States openly admits he blackmailed an allied leader to help him hurt a domestic political rival.

Let’s just start from the unassailable facts to begin here though. Impeachment isn’t popular. It’s polling below 40%. That has been consistent. There are short term spikes, but it’s never overly popular. Much like in the Clinton impeachment, it has nothing to do with the facts- half the country thought Clinton was guilty, but only 30% supported impeachment at the time of the actual votes. Even as impeachment is not popular now, neither is Donald Trump- his average approval is actually up to 44.9%, a historically mediocre to poor number in a President’s first term. Those numbers are being propped up by some outlier numbers from Rasmussen and Emerson. So it is fair to say that both impeachment and Trump aren’t popular right now.

If we accept those facts as the case, then it’s hard to see how impeachment changes it’s own politics. They know Trump. They do not really like Trump. They still do not want impeachment. There’s less polling on the matter, but polls on various accusations against Trump show the public usually believes he’s guilty. In other words they already think he’s bad, they just don’t care enough to impeach him. It’s unlikely that hearings or testimony are going to move these folks in the middle with contradictory views. Sure, the hearings will be on TV, but are these folks going to watch it? Of course not, not unless something ridiculous and extraordinary happens in them. In that sense, it means the best shot for Democrats to change the math on impeachment is probably this Fall, when opinions might still be moved by something wildly over the top. Opinions won’t move during a Senate trial. Either way, it’s more likely that nothing said ever matters in this process, because a segment of the population is just not interested in impeachment.

In the best case scenario for Democrats, they put forward some new revelations in the hearing process that make things politically inconvenient for Senators like Collins, Gardner, Tillis, and Ernst. Perhaps they can help themselves put distance between Trump and Senate Republicans in swing states, improving their chances of taking the Senate next year. What seems more likely though is Trump’s eventual acquittal, whether it be in the House or Senate, and an eventual tough vote for 40 vulnerable House Democrats, and maybe even three Senate Democrats.

I don’t think Democrats had to do this. I don’t think this reaches much beyond the core of the Democratic electorate. This is not what 2018 Democratic campaigns were based on. Ultimately, I think it’s more likely than not to be bad politics. But for better or worse, this is where we are.

Grading the Candidates- Joe Biden

No candidate has bothered the activist class of the Democratic Party more than Joe Biden. For me though, Biden remains among my top four candidates. The former Vice-President is far from perfect, as he showed with his Iraq War vote, his credit card/bankruptcy legislation, and parts of the 1994 Crime Bill that he wrote. Looking at the preponderance of his record though, Biden has been an excellent public servant and would be a good President.

Biden’s strengths as a candidate are well documented. Biden leads primary polling, usually comfortably, and has done so all year. He also continuously polls the best against Trump. He does this with near 100% name recognition. His “Scranton Joe” persona polls very well with “Rust Belt” white voters and African-Americans (as evidenced in South Carolina). He’s probably the only candidate who can boast those strengths at this point. There’s also no question that he has the qualifications for the job.

Biden’s weaknesses are also known. His legislative record offers a treasure trove of votes to examine, like those I mentioned above. His career stretches all the way back to the days of debates over busing desegregation, meaning Biden has some real challenges reaching a more progressive Democratic Party than the one he entered as a young man. An older white man is not exactly what the activist class probably has in mind for 2020. His early debate performances didn’t inspire confidence. In short, Biden has very real challenges.

Of course, some of Biden’s critics have gone off the deep end in their criticisms of the former Vice-President. It started with a ridiculous hatchet job trying to hit Joe Biden on #MeToo allegations for smelling the hair of women, orchestrated by allies of Bernie Sanders. It never stopped there. There have been multiple attempts to portray Barack Obama’s Vice-President as a racist, with the latest being the absurd attack by Jamil Smith of Rolling Stone. There was last week’s pathetic attempt by Julian Castro to make Joe Biden look old and forgetful in the debate, in which Castro ultimately got his facts wrong. This week we saw “CornPop” gate blow up on Twitter, as this week’s crop of millennial progressive writers accused Biden of making up a story about an altercation with an African-American man nicknamed “CornPop.” It turns out that despite their mockery, “CornPop” was real. Imagine that. A lot of the young, progressive class of the Democratic Party are exposing themselves as shameless and morally bankrupt in their pursuit of power- and incompetent. Their attacks aren’t working because they failed to connect with or change the mind of the base of Biden’s voters. They’re not knocking down his “Scranton Joe” image because their attacks lack credibility and don’t relate to the things Biden’s voters care about.

Biden’s credibility as a candidate will rise and fall with his ability to maintain his “Scranton Joe” working class appeal to older white and black voters. If that falls apart, he can’t win. If he can maintain it, he will pick up steam later in the process. People on both sides of the Biden debate would be smart to realize that.

And Now That It’s Over…

Saturday night was the last Phillies game on our 17 game plan for this season, and within 24 hours after that, it all finally seemed over. After the Red Sox had completed the sweep on Sunday afternoon, it finally seemed safe to stop saying “maybe” this team would make the playoffs. Last night as I laid on my couch and watched the Cubs win again, it dawned on me that this season is almost definitely over. I’d still like to see them beat out the Mets for third and win 82 games, I guess, but I don’t really care. The season that seemed so promising when I was down in Clearwater in March will end as their eighth straight season out of the playoffs.

I won’t play the game of “who to blame,” because I don’t want to leave anyone deserving out. For the second straight season, Gabe Kapler and his analytics driven approach failed in a pennant race. He over manages the game playing every match-up, and frankly his chosen coaching staff (particularly his original hitting coach and his pitching coach) taught their “new” approach to the game, and failed miserably. I’d stop the blame there, but that would be irresponsible and unfair. Matt Klentak handed him a flawed roster, one that could hit pretty well, but couldn’t pitch to save their lives. Not a single Phillies starting pitcher has a better ERA than the Braves fourth starter, Julio Teheran, and only one has thrown more innings. Klentak gave Kapler, his chosen manager, a bullpen full of pitchers over 35 years old, knowing full well that Klentak regularly likes to use his bullpen early and often. Add on a pitching coach trying to force all of the pitchers to throw four-seam fastballs up in the zone, and you see how the disaster happens. The GM did a bad job building his rotation, bullpen, and bench. The manager doesn’t use them right. The pitching coach was a noticeable downgrade from the one we let go to Atlanta. And yeah, well, the pitchers and hitters mostly didn’t do their jobs either.

You can only blame the players to the extent that they underperform their abilities. There is no doubt that this team on the field now was somewhat unlucky. Your center fielder beat up his girlfriend in a casino, your original left fielder tore his ACL in the midst of a really good bounce back season, then the new left fielder you traded for had typical nagging injuries for an older player. So sure, you’re going through the growing pains with a rookie in center field. Your third baseman did what he’s done throughout his young career so far, and when the team got impatient, they sat him down and played a lot of inferior bench players. Your old bullpen guys all got injured together, and you got stuck with waiver wire and AAA guys to finish the season. About the only part of the team that legitimately underperformed on the field was your starting pitchers, and that was fatal. Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto put up 3.8 and 5.7 WAR seasons to date, or roughly All-Star and All-Star plus level seasons in their first years here, with particularly strong second halves. Jean Segura wasn’t quite what he was last season in Seattle, but he’s an “every other year” type of player traditionally, and still posted a well above average 2.6 WAR. Cesar Hernandez is pretty much who he was last year too. Scott Kingery was a pleasant surprise to even his biggest critics, like me, posting a respectable 2.4 WAR season. The only true disappointment has been Rhys Hoskins, and he’s posting a solid 2.7. A poor second half and low batting average makes us not appreciate a 28 homer, 81 RBI performance. On the field, for the most part, you got what you paid for, so while I am not a fan of Kapler’s methods, this team’s failures need to mostly be laid at the feet of bad luck and bad front office work.

Let’s not beat around the bush- a year ago right now, our owner was talking about “stupid money.” That did not happen. Instead our general manager used his “player valuations” to talk himself out of giving Patrick Corbin the sixth year, or out-bidding the Rays for Charlie Morton, or making an offer to current Brave Dallas Keuchel, or even trading minimal value for Cole Hamels last Summer. For your information, all of those guys are currently headed for the playoffs. All of them are at least better than four of the Phillies pitchers. Did I mention above that our pitching coach from last year is in Atlanta too? Meanwhile our team President Andy McPhail’s attitude was “if we get in, we get in, if we don’t, we don’t.” The Phillies, and owner John Middleton who promised stupid money, meanwhile stayed below the luxury tax with an inadequate team. Player valuations are a great excuse for this in small markets, like Oakland and Milwaukee, both of who still have stronger playoff aspirations than us. That shouldn’t work in the largest single-team market in the league though. And if you’re going that route, you better do it as well as Oakland and Milwaukee. The ownership and front office failed this team though. They didn’t do enough to win in 2019. That’s idiotic when you consider the money they did spend.

My only conclusion is that you can’t keep the blame to just one person or part of this team. If I were John Middleton, I would remove everyone from McPhail to Klentak, and Kapler and his coaching staff. For one, they failed to reach your goals with your money. Second though, they really lost this fan base as the summer was dragging on. The stands were not full like the heyday of 2009. They weren’t that entertaining. You have a team tied for third place, in the division, and a minor league system rated near the bottom of the league. Their draft choices aren’t reaching the league, and player development is questionable at best. There’s not much whining success to point to. The best moves of last off-season, bringing in the Harpers, Realmutos, Seguras, and McCutchens are not particularly genius- any idiot with the budget would do that. On the hard moves, everyone basically failed.

A new regime, one with a bigger market perspective, could do a lot with the parts the Phillies would hand them. I think they should consider doing that.