Andy MacPhail’s contract runs through next year. He will be 68 then, retirement age for many folks, even for some high-ranking baseball executives. And the Phillies president has had more than a passing thought about his next move.
“He and I have been talking for two years, since he signed his extension, about what the world looks like when he steps down,” Phillies managing partner John Middleton said recently. “We’re not sure when he’s going to do that. It’s a conversation we’ve had multiple times, and we’re talking about it even now.”
It follows, then, in the days since Middleton removed Matt Klentak from the general manager role, that two questions have arisen in baseball circles and even within the Phillies' ranks: How much say will MacPhail have in choosing the next GM? And should he have much influence over the process at all?
Of all the issues facing the Phillies in a ninth consecutive autumn without a playoff appearance – from the challenges of re-signing imminent free agents J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius to the chore of overhauling a historically terrible bullpen, all within the parameters of a payroll that likely will be reduced from a franchise-record level before the coronavirus – how the baseball operations department will be run and by whom is as intriguing as any.
Three sources said this past week that they believe Middleton’s preference is for MacPhail to relinquish the club presidency a year early or at least to cede his baseball-related duties, thereby enabling the Phillies to hire both a president of baseball operations and a general manager. The Phillies technically had that model, but after helping to modernize the front office by building a robust research-and-development department, MacPhail took a mostly hands-off approach to day-to-day baseball matters to avoid micromanaging Klentak.
Last weekend, Middleton gave a full-throated defense of MacPhail’s value to the organization, pointing to his “wealth of contacts” and track record over 44 years.
“You do know that he’s won two World Series titles?” Middleton said, referring to MacPhail’s 1987 and 1991 triumphs as GM of the Minnesota Twins. “Yeah, it’s kind of why I have confidence in him. Because he’s been there, he’s done that, he’s won.”
But MacPhail, who hasn’t met with reporters since March, can be an asset to Middleton without continuing as team president. Middleton values input from Hall of Fame general manager Pat Gillick and venerable former Twins GM Terry Ryan, both of whom hold advisory roles. MacPhail could stay on in a similar capacity.
Otherwise, the Phillies could go into 2021 with MacPhail, in perhaps a pre-retirement hurrah, overseeing interim general manager Ned Rice, his onetime mentee with the Baltimore Orioles and Klentak’s top lieutenant. Middleton floated that possibility by noting the difficulty of integrating an outside hire to a leadership position when everyone is working remotely because of COVID-19. (It didn’t deter the Sixers from hiring Doc Rivers.)
But a MacPhail/Rice-led front office wouldn’t bring about much change. Middleton poured more than $700 million into the roster over the last three offseasons to end a playoff drought that is now the second-longest in baseball. As one source said this past week, sticking with the status quo at a time when Bryce Harper, Aaron Nola, and Zack Wheeler are squarely in their prime would seem anathema to Middleton.
Ideally, the Phillies would replace MacPhail and Klentak in the same offseason. They could pair, say, former Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry or Twins GM Thad Levine or Cleveland Indians GM Mike Chernoff or Los Angeles Dodgers senior vice president of baseball operations Josh Byrnes with a GM such as J.J. Picollo or Matt Arnold or Billy Owens, the well-regarded assistant GMs of the Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, and Oakland A’s, respectively.
But regardless of who Middleton puts in charge, creativity will be required to improve a top-heavy roster in the first offseason during the pandemic.
Revenues were down across baseball after a 60-game season in spectator-less ballparks. The Phillies weren’t immune. In an internal email on June 1, Middleton announced salary cuts for full-time employees making at least $90,000 and projected 2020 losses of “substantially more than $100 million.” Last month, the team offered a buyout package that has since been upgraded to goad more people into accepting. Many player-development staffers and scouts have contracts that expire at the end of October; some won’t be renewed.
Middleton can’t say for sure what revenues will look like next year. There’s a chance they will be closer to 2020 levels than 2019, when the Phillies raked in $392 million, according to Forbes. Player payroll – their largest expenditure, which has risen nearly 75% since 2018 – figures to shrink somewhat after Klentak was cleared this year to spend up to the $208 million luxury-tax threshold.
The Phillies have $101 million in commitments against the 2021 luxury tax for seven players: Harper ($25.38 million), Wheeler ($23.6 million), Andrew McCutchen ($16.67 million), Jean Segura ($14 million), Nola ($11.25 million), Scott Kingery ($4 million), and Odubel Herrera ($6.1 million despite being removed from the 40-man roster).
They also must factor in raises for arbitration-eligible players, notably Rhys Hoskins and Zach Eflin, and decide about picking up options for Hector Neris ($7 million) and David Phelps ($4.5 million) and tendering contracts to Vince Velasquez ($3.6 million in 2020) and Adam Morgan ($1.58 million), who had elbow surgery Thursday.
It’s fair to wonder how much of the $60.5 million that’s rolling off the books as Realmuto, Gregorius, Jake Arrieta, and David Robertson head for free agency will be reinvested. Some could be applied to Realmuto. Even in a pandemic-depressed market, the All-Star catcher will likely command between $24 million and $26 million per year for at least five and maybe six or seven seasons.
What if the Phillies have to choose between Realmuto and Gregorius?
Gregorius will seek a multiyear deal, and after 60 games as the team’s most consistent hitter, he’ll probably get it. But the Phillies will mull whether to make him the qualifying offer, reportedly set at $18.9 million. If he walks, they could move Segura back to shortstop (with top prospect Bryson Stott another year or two away) and bet on improvement from Kingery at second base.
Replacing Realmuto is more difficult given the lack of catching depth after backup Andrew Knapp and 21-year-old prospect Rafael Marchan.
But they have other needs, too. Center field could use an upgrade after Roman Quinn and Adam Haseley combined for a .598 OPS. And the bullpen will need to be overhauled after torpedoing the season with a 7.06 ERA and 14 blown saves.
Asked if it’s a high priority to sign Realmuto, Middleton said, “Absolutely.” Asked if the Phillies will succeed, he was less definitive.
“Can’t tell you,” he said. “Can you tell me what the governor and the mayor of Philadelphia are going to allow us to have next year in the way of fans? If you do, you know something that I don’t. Obviously that will determine our revenues, and revenues determine what you can do and what you can’t do.”
It all remains uncertain, like so much about the Phillies' way forward.