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.

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