In February, at the outset of spring training, Matt Klentak declared that the Phillies “have enough starting pitching and bullpen pitching to compete” among the best teams in the National League this season.
At best, it was hubris. At worst, Klentak badly miscalculated.
It’s clear now, after a COVID-shortened 28-32 season in which the Phillies posted the second-worst ERA in the league and missed the playoffs for a ninth year in a row, that they didn’t have nearly enough pitching. It cost Klentak his job, too, as he stepped down Saturday after five non-winning seasons on the job and with two years left on his contract, according to a statement released by the team.
And it’s pitching – as much as on-field results that didn’t improve with a soaring payroll, as much as a front office that was too insular, as much as not signing soon-to-be-free-agent catcher J.T. Realmuto to a contract extension, as much as anything – that caused Klentak’s demotion. It’s ironic considering he always listed it as his highest priority.
Klentak will be reassigned to another position, the team said. Assistant general manager Ned Rice, who, like Klentak, worked with team president Andy MacPhail with the Baltimore Orioles before joining the Phillies, will serve as GM on an interim basis.
Upon being introduced as the 11th general manager in franchise history on Oct. 25, 2015, Klentak pledged to build the Phillies back into a perennial World Series contender by adding “waves of pitching” to the organization. But their pitching staffs ranked 22nd in ERA (4.41) and 14th in Fangraphs' WAR (61.8) during his tenure, including 19th (4.47) and 15th (33.6), respectively, over the last three years as they shifted focus from rebuilding to contending.
The lack of organizational pitching depth became more apparent this year in the compressed season.
With expanded rosters, teams were able to carry more pitchers than usual. But the Phillies lacked the experienced arms to fill out an 11-man bullpen, resorting mostly to relievers who would have opened the season in triple A. In July, pitching coach Bryan Price said the Phillies hoped “to catch lightning in a bottle," a strategy that seemed precarious at the time and turned out to be ruinous.
Klentak tried to patch the problem with three midseason trades, but Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree, and David Phelps performed terribly. In acquiring Workman and Hembree, in particular, the Phillies sacrificed potential pitching upside, sending underachieving Nick Pivetta and prospect Connor Seabold to Boston.
“Pitching wins championships. Everybody in baseball knows this,” star right fielder Bryce Harper said last Sunday after the Phillies' season ended unceremoniously. “Teams that go into each year when they have an opportunity to have three horses [in the starting rotation] and then they have a bullpen that is built from within, they go out and do their jobs and they win.”
A combination of factors contributed to the Phillies' pitching shortcomings under Klentak’s stewardship.
Despite having three top-10 picks in Klentak’s first three drafts, the Phillies opted not to select a pitcher, going instead with outfielders Mickey Moniak (first overall in 2016) and Adam Haseley (eighth overall in 2017), and third baseman Alec Bohm (third overall in 2018). In hindsight, 2016 seems like a missed opportunity, as the Atlanta Braves grabbed touted right-hander Ian Anderson two picks after the Phillies chose Moniak.
From a player-development standpoint, the Phillies remain bullish on Spencer Howard, despite his struggles in six starts this season, and were encouraged by glimpses of JoJo Romero and Connor Brogdon out of the bullpen. Overall, though, not enough pitchers in the upper levels of the farm system have made an impact at the big-league level. Some, such as Cole Irvin and Enyel De Los Santos, have slid precipitously on the depth chart.
The inability to develop pitching forced Klentak to ask managing partner John Middleton to buy it on the free-agent market. The Phillies signed Jake Arrieta to a three-year, $75 million contract during spring training in 2018 and got only 64 starts and a 4.36 ERA. They also got burned on multiyear contracts for free-agent relievers Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, and David Robertson, all of whom were short-circuited by injuries.
In need of another top-of-the-rotation starter, the Phillies spent $118 million last winter on a five-year contract for Zack Wheeler, who made a strong first impression with a 2.92 ERA in 11 starts this season.
But in another of his biggest moves, Klentak traded top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez to Miami for Realmuto. Sanchez dazzled after making his debut this year, then threw five scoreless innings for the Marlins in Game 2 of the wild-card round at Wrigley Field, which wouldn’t sting the Phillies as much if they had locked up Realmuto beyond this year.
Instead, Klentak said recently that Sanchez’s success doesn’t ratchet up the pressure to sign Realmuto, a comment that surely got the attention of Harper and several other players in the clubhouse.
There have been problems with pitching philosophy, too. After the 2018 season, Klentak and then-manager Gabe Kapler chose analytics-oriented Chris Young to replace pitching coach Rick Kranitz, who took a more traditional approach. Young emphasized attacking hitters with high fastballs, but several pitchers regressed in 2019. Zach Eflin notably began having more success when he reverted to throwing sinkers.
In general, Klentak kept a small circle of confidants, including Rice and fellow assistant GM Bryan Minniti, an approach that left some within the organization feeling disconnected or out of the decision-making loop.
It all makes you think back to the day five years ago when Klentak was introduced at Citizens Bank Park and outlined his philosophy on a successful organization.
“If you can pitch, you have a chance to win every single night,” he said. “The New York Mets are demonstrating that right now. They’re riding it all the way to the World Series and perhaps to a championship. If you can pitch, you have a chance. That will absolutely become an organizational focus for us, to add pitching at every turn -- in trades, through waiver claims, in the draft, internationally, free agency. However we need to do it, we will add pitching, pitching, pitching. Because if you can pitch, you have a chance to win every night.”