Unless John Middleton has already decided that Gabe Kapler will be back in 2020, then the Phillies’ coming 10-day, 11-game road trip against three of the top 10 teams in baseball should go a long way toward deciding not only the team’s playoff hopes but also the manager’s fate.
If the Phillies can overcome long odds to climb past the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, and New York Mets for the second wild-card berth, then there should be no discussion at all about Kapler’s future. He will have earned the right to manage another season here.
If, as the odds predict, that task is too monumental, then things will be interesting at Citizens Bank Park as the players pack up their belongings and head home after the Sept. 29 season finale against the Miami Marlins.
The situation is complicated, for sure.
Had this been an injury-free season, Kapler might already be gone because it would have meant the Phillies were struggling to get into the postseason with a team that should have been a lot better than that. But the bullpen was battered by injuries and a perceived strength in spring training became a weakness.
That said, the Phillies bullpen has not been the biggest problem since the July 31 trade deadline. In fact, the Phillies’ 3.91 ERA from their relievers since then was tied with Boston for the sixth best in baseball heading into the weekend series between those teams at Citizens Bank Park.
For that, the Phillies can thank the trio of Hector Neris, Ranger Suarez, and Jose Alvarez. Neris, in particular, has been brilliant since July 31, posting a 0.51 ERA over 22 innings of work.
The point is, the bullpen should not be used as too big an excuse for wherever the Phillies land in the standings.
The starting rotation, of course, has been a problem since the beginning of the season. The rotation’s 4.57 ERA is 11th in the National League and last in the NL East. For that, you can pin much of the blame on general manager Matt Klentak for failing to upgrade both at the start of the season and at the trade deadline, a point driven home when veteran lefty Dallas Keuchel shut down the Phillies Wednesday.
That, however, misses the fact that Kapler and pitching coach Chris Young were complicit in the belief that the rotation was good enough without any additions. They, too, thought the trio of Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Zach Eflin would be good enough behind ace Aaron Nola and veteran Jake Arrieta.
Offensively, the Phillies underachieved enough that someone wanted hitting instructor John Mallee fired and it’s a safe bet that someone was Middleton. For what it’s worth, the Phillies offense has been a lot better since Charlie Manuel took over as hitting instructor.
Going into the weekend, they were averaging 5.6 runs per game and hitting .263 with a .332 on-base percentage and .822 OPS in 28 games since Manuel replaced Mallee. The 5.6 runs per game were tied for third with the Dodgers in the National League and tied for sixth in baseball.
In 118 games with Mallee as the hitting instructor, the Phillies averaged 4.7 runs per game and hit .245 with a .322 on-base percentage and .738 OPS. The team ranked 19th overall and ninth in the N.L. in runs scored.
The Phillies are 16-12 with Manuel in the dugout. They were 60-58 before that.
These are things that Middleton must consider when he sits down to make a decision about Kapler and, for that matter, Klentak.
It should be noted that Middleton and team president Andy MacPhail were the ones who pushed hard for a transformation to analytics and the managing partner was pleased enough with the way things went last season that he extended Klentak’s contract three years through the 2022 season. MacPhail is under contract through 2021. It is believed that Kapler’s contract expires after next season.
If left up to Klentak, Kapler will definitely be back for next season. In fact, it would not be surprising if the general manager wanted to extend the manager’s contract because he thinks so highly of him. At the time of the manager’s hiring, MacPhail made it clear that Kapler was Klentak’s choice.
When the Phillies went through a seven-game losing streak and a 6-16 stretch from late May through late June that left them in the precarious position they now find themselves in, Klentak offered a vote of confidence to his manager. It’s hard to imagine Klentak feels any different now.
Without giving any specifics, Klentak said at that time that he consulted the players and they were happy with Kapler as their manager.
Therein lies the work that Middleton must do between now and the end of the season. It’s nice that Klentak said he got positive vibes from the players when he went into the clubhouse during the Phillies’ June swoon, but Middleton needs to do his own homework in that regard. It does not have to be that exhaustive.
If the Phillies come home from their road trip out of the wild-card race, the team owner needs to consult his team leaders -- Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, Nola, and Arrieta -- about Kapler. If Middleton feels a need to include others, that’s fine.
The players should be open and honest about what they think. I can honestly say I don’t know what their answers will be. It’s not something they would or should share with the media.