John Middleton, the Phillies’ managing partner who so desperately wants to win again, on Thursday reiterated his promise to “do everything in my power to bring a world championship team to our city.” And now the Phillies know what that power means.
Middleton fired manager Gabe Kapler despite the support Kapler carried from president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak, the leaders of the team’s baseball department. Middleton made the decision on Wednesday, and the team announced it Thursday morning.
The Kapler Era lasted just two seasons, neither of which produced a winning record. The Phillies invested nearly a half-billion dollars into their roster before this season, but their collection of talent was still not enough to reach October. Their starting rotation was flawed, their bullpen was injured, and their lineup failed to produce.
And as Kapler leaves, questions emerge about the team’s front office. Klentak hired Kapler before the 2018 season, praised him last month, and was committed to seeing him return in 2020 for the final year of his three-year contract. Both see the game through the same analytical lens and worked closely together for the last two seasons. Kapler was not just a manager but an extension of the front office.
But his future did not lie with Klentak. Instead, it was Middleton who made the call on another key decision.
It was Middleton who pushed for the signings over the last two winters of Bryce Harper and Jake Arrieta. And it was Middleton who forced John Mallee to be fired and recruited Charlie Manuel to return to the dugout as the hitting coach. Middleton, as he said Thursday, has the power.
He traveled with the team during its final road trip of the season to study his club as it missed the postseason for the eighth straight year. He spent the first week of the offseason interviewing players, gauging how the manager was received in the clubhouse. Middleton, despite the opinions of MacPhail and Klentak, gathered enough information to make his decision.
“I have evaluated our organization extensively, a process that included talking to many people both internally and around the league,” Middleton said Thursday in a statement. “Reassuring to me was the endorsement that people outside the Phillies gave to the progress we have made recently, both organizationally and on the field. Nevertheless, with the knowledge that I have gained from my evaluation, combined with my personal reflection on the 2019 season, I have decided that some changes are necessary to achieve our ultimate objective.”
Klentak, Middleton said, will lead the search for the next manager. But it’s hard to imagine Middleton not playing a key role in the hiring process after he was the one responsible for firing Kapler. The Phillies took a big swing on Kapler, who never had been on a major-league coaching staff but shared with Klentak a fidelity to numbers.
The Phillies generated a large shift to analytics when they hired Klentak in 2015. Kapler moved them even more in that direction. But the team might have tied itself too much to analytics as it seemed to lose some basic instincts. The Phillies fired Mallee in August and parted last week with pitching coach Chris Young, as both analytically inclined coaches failed to produce results.
Every team -- especially the successful ones -- use analytics. Each front office is trying to find the next market inefficiency as it mines through as much data as it can. By hiring their next manager, the Phillies will have to find a marriage of analytics and instincts as they return some natural feel to the dugout.
“When we hired Kap, it was our goal to develop a positive, forward-thinking and collaborative culture throughout the organization that would allow us to compete with the best teams in the league year in and year out,” Klentak said Thursday in a statement. “While we have fallen short in the win column for the last two years, I can confidently say that Kap’s efforts have established a strong and sustainable foundation for this organization moving forward.”
The Phillies now have a chance to hire a manager with pedigree. Joe Maddon, Joe Girardi, and Buck Showalter all have successful track records and are available. Brad Ausmus was fired last week by the Angels, and it’s worth noting that he’s a Dartmouth graduate, like Klentak. Delaware County’s Mike Scioscia, who led the Angels to a World Series crown in 2002, could be an option.
Phillies third-base coach Dusty Wathan, former Red Sox manager John Farrell, and Yankees third-base coach Phil Nevin interviewed with the Phillies when they hired Kapler and could be in play.
But the Phillies will have to act fast. Eight manager jobs are open around baseball, and Girardi, Showalter, and Maddon have all either interviewed for one of them or have scheduled interviews.
“With Matt leading our search for our next manager, I am confident that we will find the right person to lead us,” Middleton said in his statement.
The Phillies entered the season with postseason expectations. They traded their top prospect for a catcher who could help them win immediately, introduced Bryce Harper in an extravagant news conference atop the dugout, and walked proudly into a season that they expected to end in October.
But they spent Wednesday firing their manager while two of their division rivals, Atlanta and Washington, played postseason games.
“We came into 2019 with very high hopes. We fell short of those, and that responsibility lies with me,” Kapler said in a statement. “The next Phillies manager will inherit a team of talented, dedicated and committed players.
"There has been nothing more fulfilling in my professional career than the opportunity to work with the players on this team. I will forever value the relationships I developed with them. As I move on, I know that this organization is in a great spot and will see a lot of success going forward.”
Kapler’s last season had its challenges. Andrew McCutchen tore his ACL in June, and the team struggled to replace him at the top of the lineup. Nearly the entire opening-day bullpen suffered season-ending injuries, and Jake Arrieta missed the second half of the season with bone spurs in his elbow.
But it wasn’t just injuries that derailed the season. The starting rotation, which Klentak decided was good enough to start the season, crumbled behind Aaron Nola. The lineup, which was bolstered with three All-Stars, settled for league-average production in a season of historic offense around baseball. And the additions at the trade deadline failed to keep pace with the upgrades made by the teams with which the Phillies were competing.
The Phillies did not believe it was worth it this summer to make a move that would give them a shot at winning the wild card. They did not see much value in playing a one-game playoff, with the winner moving on to face the Dodgers in a five-game series.
So they added veterans and low-cost pickups and fell short. They fired their manager Wednesday afternoon and then watched Wednesday night as the Nationals, who had bolstered their team at the deadline, rallied to beat the Dodgers in five games after winning the one-game wild card.
The Phillies will spend the rest of the month searching for a new manager. But they will also have to adjust their mindset. They saw enough this season to know they need to upgrade their rotation. They know the depth of their roster was not ideal. And perhaps they see the value in competing for the wild card.
They have an owner who is committed to winning and will be looking to spend “a ton of money” this winter, according to a source. The Phillies have more to do this offseason than just hire a manager. But if next season ends without the Phillies in the playoffs, Middleton might be forced to wield his power again.
The Phillies announced that all coaches except pitching Chris Young, who was fired last week, and hitting coach Charlie Manuel, who will return to his front-office role, have been invited back next season. The new manager will at least be able to hire a new hitting and pitching coach, but it’s not guaranteed that the new manager will be forced to keep any of the holdovers on his staff. … Head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan and assistant athletic trainer Chris Mudd did not have their contracts renewed. Sheridan had been the head trainer since 2006. Mudd was in his role since 2014. ... The Phillies will have a news conference Friday afternoon at the ballpark.