John Middleton’s knowledge of the Phillies' history is undeniable. The team’s billionaire managing partner is also a fan who has endured many years of frustration, so when he was asked early Saturday evening about the rise and fall of Matt Klentak as the Phillies general manager, he decided to reference a century of scouting failures.
“I think the problem the Phillies have had for a hundred years is they don’t evaluate talent well,” Middleton said. “I think that was the problem a hundred years ago. It was the problem 50 years ago. There have been two periods in the Phillies' history where we had bursts where … we had a bunch of good evaluations that resulted in good drafts … that resulted in two World Series teams.”
The answer went on from there, but the abridged version of his point is that the Phillies drafted and developed well in the late 1960s and early 1970s, leading to five division titles, two World Series appearances and the franchise’s first World Series title in 1980. They drafted and developed well again in the late 1990s and early 2000s and that led to five more division titles, two more World Series appearances and the second championship in team history.
I’m not exactly sure what that had to do with Klentak’s dismissal from the GM job because he was only in charge of baseball operations for five drafts and it’s unfair to put a grade on any of them, although the 2016 selection of Mickey Moniak with the first overall pick looks really shaky right now. As Middleton correctly pointed out, the overall first round of the Moniak draft has not been particularly strong to this point and that happens some years.
That’s not to say that Klentak deserved to keep his job. As the deposed GM admitted in a statement, his job was to win and that’s especially true when the player payroll climbs into the top tier of baseball. The Phillies never won during Klentak’s five seasons as GM and his failure to build a better bullpen was the biggest reason why in 2020.
Why the Phillies failed to have even one winning season under Klentak no longer matters. That they failed is the reason Middleton is looking for a new general manager one year after replacing the manager. Middleton’s reference to the draft and later to player development was revealing about what the Phillies could and should be looking for in their next GM.
“I think successful GMs have that,” Middleton said. “I think you look at Pat Gillick’s track record. He tends to be more on the scouting side than player development. It’s the acquisition of talent that is critical, so I’ll be looking for people who have proven they can do that. That’s where my target is.”
Analytics, surprisingly, never came up during the Saturday Zoom call with Middleton. That was his baby and it’s unlikely he is going to throw it out with the bath water. It sure sounds as if Middleton has reached a point where he wants someone in charge of baseball operations who can mesh old-school scouting and player development with new-age analytics technology.
Baseball people inside and outside the Phillies' organization strongly believed that Klentak put too many of his eggs in the analytics basket and mostly ignored advice from veteran scouts and advisors.
So now, perhaps, Middleton will look for a happy medium. Former Phillies assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle, one of the people most responsible for the Phillies' second great era that Middleton referenced, believes he knows the right man for the job.
In fact, he told the Phillies five years ago that J.J. Picollo would be a great hire as their next general manager and the team interviewed the Cherry Hill native. Five years later, Arbuckle believes Picollo is even more qualified for the job.
“First of all, he has excellent baseball instincts,” Arbuckle said by phone Monday. “His people skills are tremendous and he does a great job of leading. His style reminds me of a lot of good general managers that I have been around. They ask questions, they listen and they gather information from differing points of view. Once they’ve collected all that information, they use it to make an educated decision about what they should do.”
Arbuckle, who is in his final days as an advisor with the Kansas City Royals, has worked with Picollo since 2008 and he has watched him lead departments on both the scouting and player development side.
“He knows how to run departments,” Arbuckle said. “He has run scouting and player development, so he has experience in both those areas. I think he’s an even better candidate now than five years ago because his knowledge of analytics has grown as our organization grew in that regard. He’s very up to date in all of that and he knows how to best utilize it on the field. I just think he’d make for a really good balance between the two sides because of his player evaluation background and his ability to use numbers in a valuable way.”
Picollo, 49, is currently Kansas City’s vice president and assistant general manager in charge of player development. He performed that job in a rather unique manner in 2020, dressing in uniform and getting on the field to get a better feel for the development needs of players, especially in an analytical sense.
The 1989 graduate of Cherry Hill West High School got his start in Major League Baseball with the Atlanta Braves in 1999 as an area scouting supervisor before becoming the team’s director of minor-league operations in 2005. He joined the Royals in 2006 and was an integral part of the team’s decision-making that led to back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014 and 2015.
“I’m sure he would love that job,” Arbuckle said. “Anybody who has ever had an opportunity to go back home and work for the club they grew up watching would love it. I know he was a great fan of that team for a lot of years, so he has a good picture of the history of the organization.”
Maybe J.J. Picollo will get the opportunity to oversee the third great era in Phillies baseball. Having Mike Arbuckle as a sponsor should help his cause, especially when you consider how well John Middleton knows the team’s history.