All’s Well That Ends Well?

John Mallee is gone. Charlie Manuel is back! If you wanted to brighten the day of like 80% of the Phillies fanbase, you’d do what the Phillies did Tuesday. By ridding themselves of an unpopular scapegoat, and bringing back a “conquering hero” to their fanbase, the Phillies temporarily pleased their market audience, Philadelphia baseball fans, and in the process maybe did something to correct the course of their season.

I am neither a fan of the McPhail-Klentak-Kapler regime, or of the ideas they have implemented up to this point. I’m also not terribly stupid. Almost all of baseball at this point operates on analytics, and guys are hitting the baseball pretty well. On the flip side, a hitting coach doesn’t go up in the box and hit for the players on the team. I probably would not teach little leaguers to go to the plate and try to pull every pitch and always try to hit home runs. Honestly, it’s just ugly baseball. On the other hand, baseball is breaking records for offense- and seemingly not gaining fans like it expected. The modern version of the game is what it is, and so is the reaction of the public. Launch angle is producing home runs. Seats still lack rear-ends in them. The two things are not directly linked. They’re not unrelated entirely, either. John Mallee can’t shoulder the entirety of the blame for the whole Phillies line-up under-performing, a bad farm system, and an atrocious pitching staff. On the other hand, he’s a hitting coach for a team that can’t hit- he really shouldn’t keep his job. That’s made even worse by the expectation that this team would hit the ball.

I really shouldn’t be that excited that Charlie Manuel is now the Phillies hitting coach- it’s not like he’s going to go to the plate and hit for the players. But I’m excited anyway. Maybe it’s because Charlie was the hitting coach in Cleveland developing Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Albert Belle. Maybe it’s because he was manager of the best offensive teams in Phillies history, and managed the 2008 World Champions. Maybe it’s just because it’s a change to a boring, terrible product that I hated to watch. Most of all it’s because of the picture above- a sad ending to a happy time for Phillies fans, being rectified by our hero coming home to fix a mess. Does it really matter why? I’m just happy about my baseball team again.

But really though, does this move matter? I mean, we act like hitting a baseball has been reinvented in the past five years, as though great teachers of hitting a baseball twenty years ago were clearly backward hicks, incapable of teaching the game. Charlie’s teams in Cleveland hit lots of home runs, and so did his teams in Philadelphia. Because he didn’t call it “launch angle,” do we think he wasn’t teaching Jim Thome and Ryan Howard to hit for power? I have no doubt that he’ll tell hitters to hit to all fields, instead of just pulling the ball, and that he’ll tone down the emphasis on upper-cutting the ball, and that he’ll try to get hitters back to their comfort zones, instead of teaching a rigid theory, but is Charlie really a massive change? I suppose if the Phillies make the playoffs, we’ll all believe yes. I guess what I’m saying is that the answer may be more “gray area” than we all want to believe.

In the end though, who cares? Baseball is entertainment, and entertainment should make you happy. Charlie Manuel returning makes me happy. I’m just happy the sad picture of him walking away with a Wawa bag after the Phillies fired him isn’t the last chapter. If he happens to be the savior of an eventual championship season, great, but at least the fans are chanting his name again at Citizens Bank Park. Do I think he’ll save these Phillies? You can probably guess my answer. You can also probably guess that I don’t give a shit, because my team made me happy, and being happy is what matters in life.

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After the Deadline, are the Phillies Who We Thought They Are?

The trade deadline has come and passed, and I think it’s safe to say the Phillies are not an elite MLB team. If I just had to name teams off the top of my head who are clearly better, I could start with the Astros, Dodgers, and Yankees, none of whom do I think the Phillies can beat in a seven game series. The Phillies are seven games out of first, so they’re probably not catching Atlanta either. If I were a gambling man, I wouldn’t bet on the Phillies against the Nationals, Cubs, Brewers, Indians, Red Sox, or Athletics in a series either.

Alas, the Phillies are in a three-way tie for the Wild Card and would be in a playoff game if the season ended today. They’re also a better team than they were before the deadline. Laugh at Jason Vargas and Drew Smyly, if you’d like, they present actual, tangible upgrades at the second and third starter spots than the slop the Phillies were throwing- in fact, steep upgrades. Mike Morin and Blake Parker don’t make the Phillies bullpen into the “Nasty Boys,” but combine them with moving starters into the bullpen and you reduce the sting of David Robertson being done for the year. As for Corey Dickerson and his .924 OPS, even if you don’t think he’s Hank Aaron, he can play. By every measurement, the Phillies got better with every move.

And yet it didn’t really feel like it. It felt like a collection of bit moves from a team unable or unwilling to make a big move. And you know what? That’s kind of true. The Phillies did not have the kind of package that Houston traded to get Greinke. They weren’t willing to part with some of their top prospects anyway. And so here we are. They’re a playoff team today. It really feels like there are at least six teams better than them in the NL though. It’s a strange state for a team.

Success for the 2019 Phillies has been redefined as getting into the Wild Card. In the pre-season I predicted the Phillies winning the first Wild Card and then the National League. That’s still perfectly possible. It just doesn’t feel probable. Hopefully we’re about to witness the first chapter in the legend of Bryce Harper in Philly.

The Stupid Money John Middleton Actually Spent

I’m rarely astounded by anything, but this one got me- the Phillies extended Matt Klentak?!? This would be Matt Klentak who extended Pete Mackanin early in the 2017 season, but fired him at the end of the season? Klentak who has never had a winning team, and who’s teams are 266-315 since his hiring? Klentak who preferred Manny Machado to Bryce Harper, but never made an offer within $75 million of his guy’s final number. Klentak who passed on getting Cole Hamels for a bucket of slop last Summer, wouldn’t give the extra year to Patrick Corbin, did the same with J.A. Happ, didn’t want Dallas Keuchel, and currently rolls with an injured Jake Arrieta, who he gave $25 million a year to, and three young starters that collapsed last year, and mostly stink this year? The guy who made a bunch of failed trades last year at the deadline? The guy who has just two draft choices of his own that have appeared in the majors? The guy who’s system has just two top 100 prospects? What has Klentak done to deserve this?

So today we learned Klentak and Team President Andy McPhail both got secret extensions from the team- why? What has happened to warrant that? This team is treading water at .500 in mid-July, and most of the problems have been caused by them or the coaching staff they put in place. Just as the fan base was coming around to wanting everyone fired, we’re thrown for this loop? Are we really going to watch three more years of Klentak losing out on free agent pitchers over an extra year on the deal? Another three years of over valuing mediocre prospects? Another three years of a poor bench? Of hurt relievers? Is this real?

Any idiot would have signed Harper to a relatively club friendly deal. Literally any idiot makes the Realmuto or Segura trades at the time. Signing McCutchen to a relatively safe deal didn’t take much brain power either. Even the Bruce and Miller trades this year weren’t hard. What’s it all add up to? Third place. A fringe playoff team.

The Phillies really didn’t spend stupid money on any players on the roster. It turns out they spent stupid money on the guys running the team.

A Fair Minded Look at the Phillies at the All-Star Break

If the season was over today, the Phillies would be on the way to Washington, DC to play the Nats in a Wild Card match-up between Max Scherzer and Aaron Nola. The season is not over today though. The Phillies are 47-43, in third place, and trending downward. They are both a playoff team at the moment and a team who feels like everything is wrong. It is confusing.

The Phillies have the same record as the Cubs, a legitimate contender. Before you get excited though, that’s the story of the whole National League. The only teams more than five games out of the playoffs right now are the Marlins (13), Mets (7), and Giants (5.5). While the Phillies have lost 9.5 games since June started to the Braves, and over 10 to the Nats in the standings, it’s important to note that only the Dodgers, Braves, and Nationals have really played all that well in that time. This is a free for all.

The problem for the Phillies though is that their issues run deep, particularly at the starting rotation. Aaron Nola (8-2, 3.74 ERA, 110.2 IP, 1.8 WAR) is increasingly looking like the top of rotation young Ace they banked on. Zach Eflin (7-8, 3.78 ERA, 100 IP, 1.1 WAR) looks like a capable mid-rotation arm in the majors too. Then what? Jake Arrieta has continued his regression since coming to Philadelphia, and now may need elbow surgery to remove a bone spur. As much as Arrieta was disappointing, he’s been the only other major league caliber arm that you could trust to go out every fifth turn and eat six innings. After a brief hot spurt after returning from the minors, Nick Pivetta produced a 7.33 ERA over his last four starts, reverting to the early season form that got him sent down. It looks increasingly like it’s time to give Pivetta a look in the bullpen, as it has been time to do with Vince Velasquez for a while. Neither are looking like major league starters. Jerad Eickhoff is once again hurt, after pitching himself into and out of the bullpen. AAA starters Enryel de los Santos and Cole Irvin have been unable to stick with the club either. At a bare minimum, the Phillies need two major league starters to sustain themselves in a playoff race.

The line-up has taken some deserved abuse, but let’s take a deeper look for a second. Here are some of the key lines at the break:

  • Bryce Harper- .253/.370/.470/.840, 16 homers, 62 RBIs, 2 WAR
  • JT Realmuto- .273/.328/.438/.766, 10 homers, 42 RBIs, 2.8 WAR
  • Rhys Hoskins- .263/.401/.530/.931, 20 homers, 59 RBI, 2.5 WAR
  • Jean Segura- .278/.322/.447/.769, 10 homers, 40 RBIs, 2.1 WAR
  • Scott Kingery- .292/.344/.545/.889, 11 homers, 27 RBIs, 1.6 WAR
  • Cesar Hernandez- .285/.339/.420/.759, 7 homers, 40 RBIs, 1.3 WAR
  • Jay Bruce- .243/.292/.575/.867, 24 homers, 57 RBIs, 1.4 WAR
  • Maikel Franco- .227/.296/.413/.709, 13 homers, 41 RBIs, -.2 WAR

Where would you like to upgrade? Sure, Franco has been his volatile self, but with Alec Bohm looking like a 2020 arrival at third base, are you getting more than a stop gap piece for the year? Cesar can drive you nuts sometimes, but are you in a rush to trade a .285 hitter in a market where you won’t get a massive package back? Sure, you’re looking forward and seeing a team with Bohm at third, Kingery moving back to his “home” at second, and Adam Haseley and/or Mickey Moniak sliding into your outfield and you’re excited, but this group is really not too bad. Next season you’ll get Andrew McCutchen back too, which should really help. Even Brad Miller and Sean Rodriguez have done respectable jobs from the bench. About the only complaint you could have is that Roman Quinn, Nick Williams, and Aaron Altherr have all been terrible offensively as fourth outfielders. Andrew Knapp isn’t swinging a great bat, but this is what true back-up catchers give you.

All of that leads to the bullpen. Hector Neris has been mostly great as a closer. The problem has been behind him. David Robertson, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, and Seranthony Dominguez have all missed substantial chunks of the season, weakening the 8th inning. Victor Arano has been hurt, Edubray Ramos has stunk, and Juan Nicasio and Jose Alvarez have been exposed when pushed into bigger roles.

Can a team with less than five big league starters and a busted bullpen hold it’s position as a playoff team. They’re certainly capable, it’s possible. I would give them less than a coin flip’s chance though. They need to pick up some pitching, and based on the state of the system, pitching they can keep beyond this season. I’m not sure they should overpay for it though. Mortgaging the whole future for anything less than a home run doesn’t make sense for such a flawed team.

The Phillies and the Mirror

As June began, the Phillies were three games up on the Braves and ten games up on the Nationals. Today is July 5th, and the Phillies are 6.5 games back of the Braves and a half game behind the Nationals. One could essentially argue the Phillies season could be split right at the point Andrew McCutchen tore his ACL, pre and post, but it would not be fair to blame that for even most things that are wrong. This team’s flaws are deep, and they are not simply any single dramatic move away from being fixed.

The offense certainly doesn’t deserve even the bulk of the blame for this team’s struggles, but it can’t be absolved either. Bryce Harper is on pace to set a career high in RBIs, hit close to 30 homers, and post about a 4 WAR season, and yet you can argue they needed more. The season has been quite streaky for Jean Segura and Cesar Hernandez, while JT Realmuto has been steadily good, but not great. Odubel Herrera’s poor play and personal issues, and the persistent struggles of Maikel Franco have done a number on this line-up’s consistency. McCutchen and his replacement Jay Bruce have been steady surprises. Rhys Hoskins is on pace to post a 35 homer, 100 plus RBI, north of 4 WAR season. And yet with all of this, the offense is disappointing. John Mallee seems to just be getting an adequate performance from a line-up expected to dominate. Many players are not meeting their norms. The bench lacks depth. In fact, if you remove Scott Kingery’s breakthrough season, the offense is disappointing. How does Mallee have his job?

The Phillies do not have a major league starting pitching staff, and their bullpen has had more talent on the injured list than throwing in the seventh and eighth innings. Aaron Nola is rounding into ace form, in July. Zach Eflin has shown himself, last night not withstanding, to be a solid mid-rotation starter. Jake Arrieta is basically a $25 million innings eater at this point. Vince Velasquez is not a Major League starter. Nick Pivetta shows flashes, but the start that got him demoted and the 7.33 ERA over his last four starts suggests he needs a bullpen look soon. Post injuries Jerad Eickhoff just doesn’t locate his fastball or get his curveball below the bat enough. None of the highly successful AAA arms look capable. Robertson, Neshek, Morgan, Hunter, and Dominguez, all key parts to the bullpen, have missed significant time. That’s caused Nicasio, Alvarez, Ramos, and others to be exposed as incapable of high leverage seventh and eighth inning appearances. The Phillies let 2018 pitching coach Rick Kranitz walk to Atlanta in the off-season, giving the job to Chris Young. Young said the rotation’s young guys would be fine with him. It’s hard to defend the job he’s done.

All of the falls together on Gabe Kapler. His coaches are his coaches. The team has had several instances where players didn’t hustle, a Kapler issue. The team refuses to play “small ball” at all, a Kapler issue. The team hit an awful swoon last August and September, and collapsed. This June they hit another slide they have yet to really emerge from. Kapler has yet to show he can fix the flaws of his team. It’s hard to defend him, given the influx of talent he received.

And if the Phillies want to go be buyers to fix their problems, what would they even offer? The prospect pool is pretty shallow. Just two of their prospects appear in MLB’s top 100. Trading out of their top 5 is likely to do serious harm to the 2020 team, given their current levels. The AAA team has fallen off a cliff, and most of the others aren’t contending for the post-season either. Just two of Matt Klentak’s draftees have made the majors so far. Two. 2016 #1 overall pick Mickey Moniak has flashed some brilliance in AA this year, but following a scorching hot June, he just went on the injured list.

The hitting is underwhelming, the pitching is hurt and bad, the coaching is questionable, and the minor leagues are bare- when do we start blaming Matt Klentak? While it’s clear that all of these things need to be fixed, do you want Klentak to even be allowed to oversee that. He hired Kapler. He traded the emerging JP Crawford. He let Kranitz go for Young. He gave money to Carlos Santana and Michael Saunders, and signed a declining Arrieta. He drafted all these guys not good enough to make it. Is Klentak and his team who you want to fix this team? The guy who thought this pitching staff was good enough? Really?

So I guess that leads all the way up- Team President Andy MacPhail, and the man who hired him, team managing partner John Middleton. The team they have has enough raw talent to be good, but clearly needs a full cleanse to put the people in place to fix it. Does it stop at adding a player or two? Replacing a coach or two? A new manager? A new front-office? Ultimately it falls on John Middleton, a man who has been willing to sign over gigantic sums of his own money to players in an effort to try and win. How far up the chain is this thing rotten? How many changes are needed? Who does he have confidence in to get things right? With all of the tough decisions awaiting, who does Middleton trust with his money, to fix this thing and put the Phillies back in the post-season?

Because let’s be serious- if this team looks in the mirror, they’re not a playoff team right now.

Thoughts and Prayers, 4/15

Happy Monday, April 15th, 2019. I’m feeling a more rambling post today, so here we go. Let’s touch on a bunch of things.

  • Easter weekend is one week away. At one time in my life, this was one of the busiest weekends of my year. There was a time when I never missed church. In fact, at one point in my life I was an altar boy. Now my elder relatives basically implore me to attend my church. That would be the same church that used to have three masses every weekend, and the 9am mass had well north of 100 people every week. Now there’s just a Sunday, 8am mass with 15 people. I blame the church (Catholicism at large) for many of it’s own problems, but I also find the situation kind of sad. Many of the lessons I took from church were good things that society could use. Unfortunately the shame and disappointment in the church’s failings win out.
  • I slept through a tornado warning last night. Yes, one seems to have touched down in Scranton, but apparently all of Eastern Pennsylvania was under a warning. I’ve lived in Iowa a few times, where tornadoes have been known to be deadly. I guess I didn’t learn much.
  • Thursday was Wawa’s 55th birthday. What a glorious day for anyone in the Philadelphia “sphere of influence.” I did get my free coffee, at the Mt. Pocono Wawa on 115, and made sure to post it on social media. Whether I’m in the Tampa area, the Jersey Shore, center city Philadelphia, or College Hill in Easton, I love me some Wawa.
  • Pope Benedict was already my least favorite Pope in my lifetime, but that angry old man’s letter blaming homosexuality for pedophilia in the church only cemented my dislike for him. To be clear, homosexuality and pedophilia are not the same thing, or even loosely related, or frankly related at all. The priests that molested children didn’t do so because they liked men or women, they did so because they are sick individuals. His argument that the “sexual revolution” of the 1960’s is to blame for this disgrace on the church is little more than an attempt to pass the buck. Women and homosexuals living openly sexually is not to blame for the men of the church abusing their power and harming children. Full stop.
  • I know a lot of my fellow Hillary alums and fans are not going to want to hear this, but Democrats need to cast a wider net for votes in 2020 than she did, and no, that doesn’t just mean we do that with people who didn’t vote. There are a lot of people in the Democratic Party who would like to believe that Barack Obama was elected through “the rising electorate,” and therefore that the future pathway forward is “demographic destiny,” but they are not correct. It is worth noting that both in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama ran incredibly strong in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, winning them all by fairly substantial margins both times. The demographics of those states didn’t change much, and yet Hillary Clinton lost all of them but Minnesota, which she very narrowly won. The excuse of many Hillary loyalists is to simply say they are all racists, and that the way forward is to turn out more of the base. That won’t work. So much of that “rising electorate” is confined to “blue” districts in “blue” states that they won’t tip enough states. Hillary did fine holding the line in Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico, despite some drop off among base turnout in 2016. We’ve found Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona as all possible, but tough nuts to crack so far. The reality is that Texas and Georgia stayed red, even in a great cycle like 2018. We’re going to have to appeal to some of the Obama-Trump voters, or at least non-voters that are not absolute locks to always vote Democrat if they vote. We did this well in 2018. We mostly rejected far leftist candidates in swing districts of the Rust Belt, and instead ran on things like health care, education, housing, and infrastructure, with practical plans to improve on the status quo. A grounded strategy of appealing to the public’s needs in swing states is the only way to beat Trump.
  • I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the younger me. Namely, how I interacted with people who I actually liked in my younger years. People who are different than me. I’ll probably expand on this in another post, but I wish I had been more aware as a teenager. I wish I had been more aware of how life must have felt for them. I probably could have been a better friend.
  • The Phillies are 9-5, first in the NL East, after a week that felt disappointing. They went just 3-3, got destroyed twice, and gave away a big lead in a game. Odubel failed to run a ball out, Gabe tried closing a game with Edubray Ramos, Nola gave away a lead, and Eflin got shelled by the Marlins. You know what though? I’ll take it, first is first. Sure beats the last several seasons.
  • I posted an article to my Facebook about how Democrats are more likely to unfriend someone for differing political views. A lot of people took this as a positive thing- it is not. At the point where politics is all consuming, and you can’t co-exist with people of different viewpoints, politics has failed you. If every Democrat is an anti-American socialist, and every Republican a racist, we’re pretty much dead as a country.
  • Sixers-Nets game two tonight. Joel gave his team a nice lift, and Jimmy Butler was awesome, unfortunately no one else really played in game one. Let’s hope Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris are present tonight, and maybe J.J. Redick is a little helpful. Otherwise, this series will be shockingly done.