It was Sept. 18, a few days before the lights went out on the Phillies’ dim wild-card chances, when Matt Klentak offered an assessment of Gabe Kapler, the manager whom he had hired two years earlier.
“I think Kap is doing a very good job,” Klentak said. “Is he perfect every day? No. But I think the group is playing hard down the stretch. We still have a chance. I think a lot of the subtle improvements we’ve seen this year have been the product of our manager and coaching staff.”
Three weeks later — 11 long days since the season ended — Kapler is out of a job.
Shocking? Hardly. The Phillies were supposed to complete their rebuild by making the playoffs this year. Instead, they finished in fourth place. There was bound to be a reckoning. Someone had to take the fall. A manager with one year left on his contract and a lower Q-rating in Philly than a Dallas Cowboys quarterback was easy to sack.
Drink a toast, then, all you champions of the #FireKapler movement. The Phillies finally heard you. Gabe is gone.
But in firing Kapler, the Phillies revealed a management team that appears to be at odds, possibly even in a state of dysfunction. For the second time in three months, managing partner John Middleton came off the top rope to direct a personnel decision. And while that’s his prerogative after dropping nearly a half-billion bucks on roster additions, only to remain a postseason outsider for the eighth year in a row, it does raise questions about Klentak’s autonomy going forward.
Only seven months ago, the young general manager could seemingly do no wrong. Middleton gushed with praise in February, after Klentak traded for J.T. Realmuto and closed a 13-year, $330-million deal for Bryce Harper. Klentak declared that the Phillies had “an objectively excellent offseason,” and Middleton agreed, rewarding him with a three-year contract extension in the spring.
By August, though, with the Phillies’ season spiraling, Middleton ordered the dismissal of hitting coach John Mallee and talked World Series-winning former manager Charlie Manuel into returning to the dugout as the interim replacement, even though Klentak publicly supported Mallee and agreed with his philosophy.
Middleton joined the team for the final road series of the season in Washington and met with the front office on a variety of matters, including Kapler’s future. Despite Klentak’s strong endorsement for his hand-picked manager, Middleton conducted a thorough, two-week evaluation that, according to his comment in a statement released Thursday, “included talking to many people both internally and around the league.”
And, in the end, Middleton overruled Klentak again, proving that he might not be as impulsive as George Steinbrenner, but he craves every bit as much hands-on influence.
This isn’t to suggest that Kapler was unjustly terminated. He led the Phillies to a 161-163 record over the last two seasons. His flaws were on full display, from an unceasing intensity that often prompted him to use his bench and bullpen as though every situation was Game 7 of the World Series, to an inability to pull the Phillies out of back-to-back, second-half meltdowns.
Kapler also shared blame in the team’s pitching problems. After the 2018 season, he cited fielding independent pitching -- FIP, for short, an advanced pitching metric -- as a predictor of greater success for Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez, in particular. Instead, both struggled this year under data-driven pitching coach Chris Young, Kapler’s choice over more-traditional Rick Kranitz.
Most of all, Kapler neither looked nor sounded nor behaved like any Phillies manager who had come before him. He knew it, too, memorably saying a few months ago, “I’m not [expletive] Dallas Green. I never will be.” He tried to connect with fans, even spending the offseason in Philadelphia and toying with the idea of town-hall meetings to discuss the team.
Ultimately, though, the Hollywood-born 44-year-old former outfielder with the body-builder physique and Malibu tan wasn’t enough of a “Philly guy”. Fans who were raised on a more-traditional style of baseball were turned off by his analytical bent and unwavering positivity.
Kapler probably will manage again, perhaps even following Terry Francona, his mentor, who won big in Boston and Cleveland after getting run out of Philly.
So, Middleton delivered the pound of flesh that the bloodthirsty paying customers demanded. But, it doesn’t change the fact that the roster is top heavy, lacking quality players behind Harper, Realmuto, Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins, Scott Kingery, and Andrew McCutchen -- assuming he’s able to return to his level of play at age 32, after a knee reconstruction. And, the farm system lacks top-end talent and reliable depth.
Kapler’s firing also doesn’t fix a starting rotation that wouldn’t have been good enough to keep the Phillies in wild-card contention even if the bullpen hadn’t been ravaged by injuries.
That was on Klentak. And the next manager — Buck Showalter? Joe Girardi? Joe Maddon? — will inherit all those issues.
Who will choose that successor, anyway? In his statement, Middleton said, “With Matt leading our search for our next manager, I am confident that we will find the right person to lead us.”
But, if Middleton didn’t take Klentak’s recommendation on Kapler, why wouldn’t he just drive the train on the managerial search, too?
One thing is for sure: If Klentak doesn’t provide the next manager with a better cast of characters, it will be the last hire he gets to make.
Middleton, it appears, will see to it.