It was a lovely hour dominated by the voice of John S. Middleton, the managing partner of the Phillies who, along with his fellow owners, was once accused of being unaccountable and too far in the shadows. The memory of that John Middleton is as faded now as the memory of the Phillies’ last playoff appearance.
At one point Friday, the man who decided Gabe Kapler need not return for a third season as manager offered this about his role in the organization: “I’d like to think I actually bring value to an organization. That I’m not a potted plant sitting in the corner.”
Truth be told, if the end-of-season news conference had been a rock show, it would have been billed as John Middleton and the Potted Plants because he was clearly the lead singer with backup vocals coming from team president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak.
It was already known that Klentak did not think Kapler should take the fall for the Phillies’ failed 2019 season. Middleton, without much detail, offered his process for coming to the conclusion that he needed a new manager in 2020 after being urged by MacPhail to perform a thorough investigation of the situation.
The very abridged version of what happened: Middleton had three lengthy meetings with Kapler, with the final two coming after the season ended, before deciding to fire the manager.
“I felt if I was going to bring Gabe back, I had to be very, very confident we were going to have a different outcome in 2020," Middleton said. "I kept bumping up … to the September collapses. I couldn’t get comfortable or confident enough that if I brought him back we wouldn’t run into other problems, and therefore I made the decision I did.”
The Phillies went 20-36 in Kapler’s two Septembers as manager.
Everything said after that had little meaning. No one was willing to clearly identify what the team will be looking for in its next manager.
“We’re going to look for someone who can appreciate the organization that we have and the culture that’s been developed here and embrace that and obviously put their own spin on it,” Klentak said. “Nobody is going to be exactly like the guy they are replacing. But we want someone who’s going to appreciate the staff we have and the things that we do and come in and take us over the finish line because that’s what this is really about. This is about wins and losses and getting us where we want to be, and that’s playing in October, competing for a championship.”
There, of course, were questions about analytics, and, for the record, Klentak, MacPhail and especially Middleton remain committed to baseball by the numbers and algorithms.
“First of all, we had no analytics department before I came on the scene,” Middleton said. “So I’m the guy who is driving that bus. Not Matt, not Andy, not Gabe, not even Andy Galdi, who runs that department. Look at the postseason teams, they’re all analytically driven. To think this is a fad that is going to fade away is silly.”
A lot of time was spent on Kapler’s firing and analytics before the crux of the Phillies’ situation was raised during the final minutes of the Middleton show.
If you want to know why Atlanta, Washington, and the Mets all finished ahead of the Phillies in 2019, it had less to do with Kapler and analytics than it did with the makeup of the rosters.
While an upgrade at manager and a better implementation of analytic information would be welcome, the Phillies ultimately need better players. Signing Bryce Harper was not a mistake. Neither was trading for catcher J.T. Realmuto. Aaron Nola is still worthy of being called an ace even after taking a step back in 2019. A foundation is in place, but a lot of parts are still needed.
What’s next for the Phillies in the free-agent market? Are they willing to take another dive into the deep end of that pool?
“We’ll have to see how the deep end is defined once we get to the free-agent period,” Middleton said. “You and I don’t know sitting here today who’s going to be a free agent and who’s not.”
We do not, but the potential names -- Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson, Gerrit Cole, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun Jin-Ryu, Zach Wheeler, Jake Odorizzi, Dallas Keuchel, Cole Hamels, Will Smith, and possibly Aroldis Chapman and Stephen Strasburg -- could make for a fascinating market, and Middleton’s greatest asset and selling point to his next manager are his bankroll and his willingness to spend it.
Could Middleton take the Phillies over baseball’s tax payroll threshold for the first time in order to load up on this year’s strong class of free agents?
“Here’s what I’m not going to do,” he said. “I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second wild-card team. That’s not going to happen. I think you go over the luxury tax when you’re fighting for the World Series. If you have to sign Cliff Lee and that puts you over the tax, you do it. If you have to trade for Roy Halladay and sign him to an extension and that puts you over the tax, you do it. But you don’t do it for little gain.”
So that left just one important question for John Middleton: How close does he think his team is to competing for another World Series title?
“I don’t think we’re that far away,” he said.
If that’s the case, then the Phillies’ lead vocalist must continue to put his money where his mouth is.