It bubbled up Saturday night when three errors prompted Joe Girardi’s postgame plea to “just catch the ball.” But it boiled over Sunday when the manager got into an ire-raising dugout exchange with second baseman Jean Segura after another error, and then needed to use sore-shouldered Bryce Harper because there wasn’t a healthy player on the bench.
Forty-one games into the season, Girardi is exasperated with how the Phillies are playing and the state of the roster. By the end of the weekend, he could no longer conceal it.
The question now is what will Dave Dombrowski do about it?
Girardi got hired 19 months ago to change the culture in a clubhouse that hasn’t caught a whiff of the postseason since 2011. Dombrowski signed on for $20 million in December to give Girardi a better, deeper roster. Neither mission was a short-term job. But ownership recruited Girardi and Dombrowski, who have six World Series rings between them, to get it done.
The Phillies’ flaws are numerous. They are a bad defensive team. They have needs at the back of the starting rotation. Everyone knows about center field. But nothing is as profound as the lack of organizational depth, an issue that came into focus last week.
Harper, J.T. Realmuto (wrist), Didi Gregorius (elbow), and backup catcher Andrew Knapp (rib cage) are banged up but not on the injured list because the Phillies are out of viable replacements. Part of that is because four players — reliever Archie Bradley (side), infielder Ronald Torreyes (COVID-19), and outfielders Matt Joyce (calf) and Roman Quinn (finger) — are sidelined.
But Scott Kingery, who might have been concussed Sunday, is in the majors despite striking out in 12 of 19 plate appearances. Mickey Moniak, the only position player on the 40-man roster who is neither injured nor in the majors, is 3-for-25 in triple-A. Six 40-man spots, 15% of the roster, are occupied by pitchers who have made one or no big-league appearances.
Dombrowski isn’t the type to idle when action is required. In 33 years as the chief baseball executive with five teams, he has pulled off a total of 218 trades, according to one unofficial count. Some were stop-the-presses, five-column-headline blockbusters; others barely merited a mention in the agate type alongside the nightly box scores.
“I think when you’ve been a general manager as long as Dave has been a general manager, you understand what it takes to win, what the roster makeup needs to be, what the organization needs to do overall,” said former Atlanta Braves GM Frank Wren, who worked with Dombrowski in Montreal, Florida, and Boston. “I think he understands that as well as anyone and can implement it.”
Dombrowski realizes the Phillies, at 21-20, aren’t one player from winning the World Series. But their core — Realmuto, Harper, and starter trio Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin — is in its prime. And nobody is running away with the National League East. Even as the Phillies lost two of three games over the weekend, the Mets got swept at Tampa Bay, then placed Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil on the injured list.
There are obstacles to Dombrowski’s ability to pull off a consequential trade. The Phillies’ farm system is ranked in the bottom third in baseball by most observers. Also, the payroll is about $7.5 million shy of the $210 million luxury-tax threshold, leaving little room to take on salaries unless Dombrowski is able to convince ownership to keep spending.
(For an organization that hasn’t been to the playoffs in nine years, Dealer Dave may argue for doing whatever it takes to get in.)
The calendar isn’t working in the Phillies’ favor, either. The trade market isn’t typically active until closer to the July 31 deadline, when there’s more separation between contenders and also-rans. Even Dombrowski has made only 27 trades, 12.4% of his career total, between opening day and July 1.
Dombrowski swung one of the more notable of those deals with the Phillies. In 2005, when he ran the Detroit Tigers, he acquired infielder Plácido Polanco for reliever Ugueth Urbina and utility infielder Ramon Martinez in the first week of June.
“It probably only took three or four conversations for it to be completed,” then-Phillies GM Ed Wade recalled, adding that his only deal that came together more quickly was a two-phone-call trade of catcher Johnny Estrada to the Braves for pitcher Kevin Millwood in December 2002. “The timing of that [Polanco] deal was driven by some unique circumstances.”
Indeed, the Phillies needed late-inning help for the bullpen after what Wade described as the “unforeseen development” of Tim Worrell leaving the team for personal reasons. They valued Polanco but had trouble getting him into the lineup with David Bell at third base and Chase Utley emerging at second.
“While we were looking for that type of reliever, we found out that Urbina had worn out his welcome in Detroit, so David and I spoke and made the deal,” Wade said. “As tough as it was to move Polly, we felt time and circumstance dictated that we had to do it if we could find someone to fill the setup role.”
One of Dombrowski’s strengths, according to Wade, is that he listens to information from scouts about not only which players could help the team but the needs of other teams. As Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said a few years ago, Dombrowski “knows his personnel extremely well, and he knows your personnel extremely well.”
“We both subscribed to the approach of hiring dedicated scouts whose opinions we could trust, which allowed he and I to have direct to-the-point conversations,” Wade said. “When the two of us had discussions, we usually would cut to the heart of the matter.”
Maybe Dombrowski will be able to find a trade that can help sooner. Maybe he won’t. But after a weekend in which the Phillies’ depth failed them as much as their defense, you didn’t need to see Girardi’s frustration to realize that the trade deadline may be too late.