The Phillies understood five years ago that the road back to relevance would be long. They had lost 277 games in the past three seasons and had an outdated approach.
They believed that by hiring Matt Klentak, an Ivy Leaguer steeped in analytics, they had the general manager to chart the course.
It turns out, his path was too drawn out.
The Phillies removed Klentak as general manager on Saturday after five non-winning seasons and no postseason appearances. The Phillies had a record-setting payroll this season but finished four-games below .500 and missed the playoffs despite the field’s being expanded to 16 teams.
Klentak, who is under contract for two more seasons, will remain with the team in a yet-to-be determined role.
“I think the reality is I’ve just been looking, over time, at what we’re doing and the progress we’ve made and I’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve made progress but we haven’t made progress fast enough,” managing partner John Middleton said. “I looked at what we’d be doing a year or two from now and I said, ‘You know what, I’m not sure I see that it’s going to necessarily lead to the things I want to see.’ So I made the decision to move on.”
The Phillies reassigned Klentak, but they retained president Andy MacPhail, who interviewed Klentak five years ago and presented him to Middleton as a finalist for the team’s vacant GM job. MacPhail, Middleton said, will be involved in the search for a new general manager.
Ned Rice, Klentak’s front-office confidant and assistant general manager, will be the interim GM.
A search for a new general manager, Middleton said, could take an entire year because of complications brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. The Phillies may have changed the voice of the GM on Saturday, but the tone could sound very similar as the team enters a pivotal offseason.
“If you’re talking about a permanent hire, that would be one issue,” Middleton said of Rice’s being too similar to Klentak. “If you’re talking about something that could be two-three months or at most a season, that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. Frankly, that’s a totally different concern. It should be.”
Klentak, 40, replaced Ruben Amaro Jr. to become the 12th general manager in franchise history. Amaro was an assistant GM when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008 and was the GM when they averaged 97.3 wins the next three seasons.
But baseball’s analytical revolution seemed to pass the Phillies by and they needed a fresh approach after three non-winning seasons. So they turned in October 2015 to Klentak, who graduated from Dartmouth and worked for MacPhail in Baltimore, to bring them forward.
The Phillies constructed a research and development department, introduced new training-technologies to the minor leagues, and used cutting-edge tools to evaluate players. They seemed to overhaul the entire organization.
But none of that was enough for the Phillies to reach the postseason; even this season when a losing record would have been enough to reach October. Middleton overruled Klentak and MacPhail last October to replace Gabe Kapler with Joe Girardi, but the Phillies were plagued this season by baseball’s worst bullpen in 90 years.
It was a unit that Klentak failed to address before the season and then made even worse by a trade in August.
Klentak spent nearly $700 million on free agents the last three offseasons. Before the 2019 season, he signed five former All Stars and Middleton noted at the time that it was something Branch Rickey and Pat Gillick never did. But as Klentak spent, he failed to develop many quality major-leaguers of his own.
The Phillies, under Klentak, consistently had high draft picks yet have a farm system rated among the worst in the majors. The new general manager will be someone, Middleton said, who is able to both acquire and develop talent.
“We just haven’t produced the guys,” Middleton said. “We haven’t produced the talent yet and that’s a problem that has haunted us. It was the No. 1 mandate I gave Andy and Matt when they came in. We’ve improved, we’re better than we were, but we aren’t nearly good enough, and I think that’s what hurt us.”
“You can’t build a championship team around free agents and we just didn’t have the internal players coming up to really field the competitive team that we needed.”
There is no firm timetable, Middleton said, to hire a new general manager. The team’s offices at Citizens Bank Park are closed by the coronavirus pandemic and the organization is offering buyouts to full-time employees before announcing layoffs next month.
Hiring a candidate during the pandemic presents challenges. In-person interviews would be difficult and the new hire would have to meet the staff remotely. The Phillies, Middleton said, have to be flexible and nimble.
“Holding Zoom meetings only goes so far, particularly when you are establishing relationships,” Middleton said. “What I’ve discovered over the last six months is Zoom is a pretty good way to have meetings with people that you know. But when you start introducing new people to each other via Zoom calls, it’s not nearly the same thing. So I think that’s going to play a factor in terms of our timetable.”
Five years later, the Phillies have a slightly improved farm system, a better roster, and an updated approach. The road to relevance does not appear to be as long as it did five years ago. This time, they need to hire the right general manager. Five years later, the same people who hired Klentak — largely, Middleton and MacPhail — will try again.
When asked about MacPhail, Middleton said: “You do know that he’s won two World Series titles? You do know that Pat Gillick, who’s in the Hall of Fame, has only won three? You know that John Schuerholz, who’s in the Hall of Fame, has only won two? Yeah. It’s kind of why I have confidence in him. ...
"Look, he’s done this before. He’s done it well.”