Everything fell into place for the Phillies on the out-of-town scoreboard Sunday afternoon, but there was no need to watch what was happening elsewhere. That’s because the game that mattered most, the one that they could control and the one that they had to win, provided the final proof that manager Joe Girardi’s first Phillies team had no business being a part of the expanded 2020 postseason.
By the time the final scores went up in St. Louis — Cardinals 5, Brewers 2 — and San Francisco — Padres 5, Giants 4 — the Phillies already knew they had squandered their own playoff hopes by losing, 5-0, to the Tampa Bay Rays despite sending staff ace Aaron Nola to the mound.
The streak of seasons without either a playoff berth or a winning record is at nine. Now the first question of the offseason that needs to be answered is this: Was Girardi’s first Phillies team the last for general manager Matt Klentak?
That decision, of course, belongs to John Middleton, whose own resume since becoming the team’s managing partner leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, he’s pumped up the payroll, bulked up the analytics department and made it loud and clear through his actions and words that he is sick of losing.
And yet another season has passed without the desired results.
This one, even in its twisted and abbreviated COVID-19 form, has to be the most disappointing of them all. With stars like Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto already in place, the Phillies added Zack Wheeler to a rotation that already included Nola and got great value out of him and free-agent shortstop Didi Gregorius.
The Phillies also got way more than they could have asked for from third baseman Alec Bohm, who emerged as a candidate for National League rookie of the year by hitting a team-high .338 with an .881 OPS.
Even though they were blanked in the season finale, the Phillies' offense most nights matched up with almost any team in baseball, averaging 5.1 runs per game. And still they finished four games under .500 at 28-32.
Girardi felt like the Phillies could have been a lot better.
“We won 28 games,” he said. “I think we could have just as easily won 38 games or 35 games. I really do. Obviously there are free agents on our team that meant a lot to our team and I can’t tell you what is going to happen there.”
Again, Middleton is in charge of the financial department, but he has to trust Klentak to spend the money wisely and he has to be convinced that his general manager can at least get Realmuto to re-sign with the team. If nothing else, the general manager received a ringing endorsement from Girardi on the final day of the season, but it should be noted that Klentak’s endorsement of Gabe Kapler at the end of last season was not enough to save the manager’s job following a lengthy deliberation period by Middleton.
“I have loved working with Matt Klentak,” Girardi said. “I think we have an outstanding relationship. We talk about situations all the time. It has been a real pleasure working with him, so I look forward to working with him next year and this offseason trying to get this thing right. He’s working just as hard as the rest of us.”
Middleton needs to ask Klentak some tough questions and here’s a short list to get him started:
How can the Phillies have one of the highest payrolls in baseball and not make an eight-team playoff field?
Why are they spending so much money on analytics and not getting nearly as much value at the margins as low payroll clubs like Tampa Bay and Miami?
Why did they just trade a bunch of pitching prospects for bullpen veterans that did not improve the bullpen?
Why was the bullpen so bad in the first place?
Do former first-round picks Adam Haseley and Mickey Moniak have futures as everyday players, and why is the minor-league system considered among the bottom five in baseball?
Girardi had his own list of ways he believes the Phillies need to get better.
“Well, I think defensively we need to improve,” he said. “I think there are situations hitters can take advantage of that we can expose on other teams. I think we need to be better at closing out games. That hit us in the rear a lot this year.”
Yes, the Phillies' derrieres were redder than their uniforms from all the late-inning losses attributed to their historically bad bullpen. The Phillies blew a league-leading eight games when they held leads of three runs or more and the final bullpen ERA was 7.06. Maybe it’s just a matter of fixing the bullpen, which was considered one of Girardi’s great strengths during his 10 seasons with the New York Yankees.
“I always believed in them and we always talked about situations we wanted to put guys in to try to be successful,” Girardi said. "We made some changes and we thought that was going to be big for us. It started off going pretty well and then that kind of faded the last couple of weeks.
“Still, through all that we had a chance, but I put it on me. I didn’t get the most out of our bullpen and we tried. We have to get better at that. I have to get better at that.”
Bryce Harper had his own interesting opinion about the bullpen problem.
“I think the bullpen is made from within,” he said. “Not all teams go out and spend a million bajillion dollars on bullpens. You can’t just go out and spend a crazy amount of money on a bullpen because you have to to be able to rely on the guys in your organization to get the job done.”
As it turned out, the Phillies traded away some of their potentially young bullpen arms for veteran relievers that did not make the bullpen better. Was that a fatal mistake by the general manager or does Klentak deserve another chance?
“I mean, I’m not an owner,” Harper said. “I’m glad I don’t have to make those decisions.”
Nope, he doesn’t, but John Middleton does and hopefully he comes to a decision about Klentak a lot faster than he did on Kapler a year ago.