The Phillies exited baseball’s postseason race quietly Tuesday afternoon in Washington. If their demise made a sound, it would have been that of the last air as it escapes from a deflating balloon, something approximating either a light snore or weary flatulence.
That’s a bit harsh, but the Phillies have earned it. They haven’t been good this season, but they also haven’t been fully bad. What they have been is just really annoying.
They have been annoying like a puppy that, after much work, shows signs of being housebroken. But, just when you believe the job is done, there is a huge, steaming 9-1 loss in the box score the next day, and then the thin trickle of a late 3-2 defeat puddling from the bullpen.
What you want occasionally is for the manager to rub their noses in the failures and toss them into the yard, but that would be wrong, because everyone showed a lot of fire in the dugout, and they presented well as a team, and there was no quit in anyone.
No, of course there wasn’t. It was just all those wasted nights when the pitching crumbled and the offense couldn’t keep up. Or when the game was close, and some basic blunder befell them. Or the deepening tally of the injured list and the thin replacements that filled the void. Or when the season seemed somewhat salvageable to everyone but those in the front office.
When the story of this Phillies season is remembered and retold, it actually won’t be. This season will be gone like VHS when it comes to a blessed halt Sunday. Make that the slogan for the year: “2019 Phillies: Did that happen, or was it the late-night pizza?”
Oh, it happened, and it was annoying, but the truth is: there’s no one to blame. This will not be a popular position, but it’s true. The front office had a splashy, expensive offseason, and the flip side of that spending spree was choosing to believe the incumbent starting pitching would improve.
“That group of guys was pretty good last year,” general manager Matt Klentak said around the July 31 trade deadline. “There’s no question that we bet on some improvement from some of those players based on what they had shown, based on their ages, their development curve, that we thought there would be more improvement than what we’ve seen. It’s hard to look back and second-guess that thought process. It’s easy to look back and second-guess the results, just like many Phillies fans have second-guessed.”
Well, it’s not that hard to second-guess the thought process when comparing the first half of 2018 for the starters (pretty good) to the second half (oofta), but what Klentak didn’t say was that you can’t station a cat outside every mouse hole. His focus was the position players, and he brought in Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto, and, OMG, Bryce Harper. If that largesse left limited flexibility in improving the pitching, then it did, and no one was complaining at the time.
As it turned out, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin, and Vince Velasquez weren’t worthy of the confidence showed in them by the organization. Combine that with a Biblical plague of injuries to the bullpen — who could have figured Tommy Hunter would be hurt for a fourth straight year? — and the Phillies always seemed to be pushing a rock uphill with the pitching staff.
Then, the offense lost its ability to keep up consistently when McCutchen got hurt, and Odubel Herrera ran afoul of his own stupidity, and Maikel Franco kept drifting along toward his inevitable release. Management didn’t do badly in acquiring Jay Bruce and Corey Dickerson to stop the bleeding, but the season was almost beyond saving at that point.
The front office certainly thought so and held tight to its top prospects at the trade deadline. Whether that was wise won’t be known for a few years. In the last decade, top organizational prospects — those guys you don’t risk for short-term roster improvement — have included Domonic Brown, Trevor May, Jesse Biddle, and J.P. Crawford.
Maybe that list of farm-system busts will someday include third baseman Alec Bohm and pitcher Spencer Howard, or perhaps the current hot guys will live up to expectation and become stars for the Phillies. Either way, the Phillies weren’t parting with them, or other highly rated prospects, merely to knock a few fleas off the dog of 2019.
“It’s hard for us to make the judgment now that we’re one trade away from the World Series. We don’t believe that,” team president Andy MacPhail said in July. “As a result, you’re going to be … a little judicious and careful about what talent’s walking out the door.”
“Sometimes what you give up can serve as proxy for aggressiveness or intent,” Klentak said, “but I think there’s also a value in reading a market and trying to make the best deals that you can.”
That’s sound logic, assuming they have correctly valued their prospects, but logic doesn’t sell season tickets or appease the fan base. It might be that someone will still have to take the fall, just from a public-relations standpoint, for the disappointing result.
This won’t be a popular opinion, either, but it probably won’t be MacPhail or Klentak, the latter of whom was given an unannounced three-year contract extension in March that lasts through the 2022 season. Manager Gabe Kapler would be a handy scapegoat, of course, but Klentak has been steadfast in his support of Kapler. Sure, he’s different, the general manager has said, but we think he’s a good kind of different.
In all likelihood, the team will make a window-dressing move, such as firing pitching coach Chris Young, focus the blame on all the injuries and poor luck, and otherwise stand pat. From the organization’s perspective, it would be nice if the Eagles did a better job of capturing civic attention, but either way, the Phillies figure to just ride it out and wait for spring.