Day One of the Phillies' offseason passed without any news about Matt Klentak’s future as the team’s general manager.
No news, of course, is not necessarily good news for Klentak in this case because it took managing partner John Middleton 11 days after the end of the 2019 season before he informed Gabe Kapler he would not return as manager.
This decision, regardless of what it is, should not take as long. Klentak has been the general manager for five seasons and that should be more than enough time for Middleton to know how he feels about his body of work and whether he is the right man to get the Phillies back among the elite teams in baseball.
A team source said Monday that he believes Klentak will return and, predictably, that sentiment was met with wide disdain when it was posted on Twitter.
It should be noted that the team source is not making the call here, but it was a voice that should be heard by Middleton. The Phillies' managing partner made it clear before the season that one of the voices he definitely still listens to is former general manager and team president Pat Gillick. I don’t know how Gillick feels about Klentak’s job performance after five seasons.
The bottom line under Klentak obviously has not been good enough. The Phillies have gone five straight years under the general manager without reaching the postseason and they have also failed to post a winning record despite a payroll that has climbed to just south of the luxury tax threshold at $207 million.
The Phillies, under Middleton’s orders and Klentak’s direction, have built a formidable analytics department that many baseball people inside and outside the organization believe is relied upon too much at the expense of human opinions.
Middleton made his feelings on that subject clear last year after he fired Kapler.
“First of all, we had no analytics department before I came on the scene,” he said. “So I’m the guy who is driving that bus. Not Matt, not Andy [MacPhail], 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.”
It did not go away during Joe Girardi’s first year as manager. Girardi believes in analytics, but he also has an allegiance to old-school baseball, which is why we saw some squeeze bunts and sacrifice bunts even on the road when the team batted first in extra innings with a runner starting at second base.
The Phillies did get better in some ways. They finished tied for fifth in runs scored per game at 5.1 and were the only team in the top seven that failed to qualify for the postseason. They were 14th in that department last season at 4.78 runs per game. Their starters had the 10th best ERA in baseball at 4.08, which was down from 4.64 a year ago.
The team’s obvious downfall was its historically bad bullpen, which finished with a 7.06 ERA and 12 blown saves in 60 games. For that, Klentak deserves the majority of the blame because it seemed as if Girardi always pushed the wrong button regardless of the one he pushed.
Does Middleton have confidence the bullpen problem can be fixed by Klentak in one season? Does Middleton believe Klentak is the right man to persuade catcher J.T. Realmuto to remain with the Phillies now that he is about to become a free agent?
With shortstop Didi Gregorius also eligible for free agency and uncertainty both offensively and defensively in center field, the Phillies are going to have a lot of work to do this offseason in a market that will be unsettled after a cash-strapped season without fans.
It might have helped Klentak some that Girardi spoke up on his behalf after the Phillies concluded the season with a postseason-denying loss to Tampa Bay.
“I love working with Matt,” Girardi said. “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.”
Klentak has undoubtedly worked hard because that’s the nature of the job he is in. But as the season neared its end Sunday night, I couldn’t help but think about something former Phillies scouting director and assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle told me when I was recently working on his retirement story.
“One thing I wanted to be sure to mention was that all the general managers I ever worked for always allowed me to make the decisions on draft day,” Arbuckle said.
"I say that because along the way I would hear horror stories about scouting directors and their staffs looking at players and compiling all this information and doing all this travel and then the day of the draft the general manager would come in and say, ‘Boy, I like this guy, let’s take him.’ I never encountered that at all.
“Whether it was Lee [Thomas] or Ed [Wade] or Pat [Gillick] … those guys always allowed the scouting director to make the decision. Lee told me when he hired me, I just want you to get me good players. So he let me from day one in 1993 do that. I would always keep him in the loop. I would never surprise him. They always knew my thought process, but I always believed that I needed to sink or swim in my opinion.”
Arbuckle’s greatest strength, in turn, was listening to the people he had hired first in the scouting department and later in player development. You get the sense around One Citizens Bank Way that analytics too often rule the day and that the opinions of some very smart baseball people are often ignored by the general manager and his small circle of decision-makers.
If Klentak is fortunate enough to keep his job, he should welcome and consider a wider variety of opinions even if they do not always align with his own or what the analytics suggest he should do. That approach might just make him a better general manager.