Part of the problem with rebuilding a team primarily through free agency is that it tends to leave a shortfall in homegrown talent. And because the expectation to win grows in lockstep with a skyrocketing payroll, it can be difficult to show patience with the few young players who are on the roster.
In that way, Joe Girardi seemed in 2019 like the perfect choice to manage the Phillies.
Girardi lasted 15 years as a major-league catcher because of his focus, discipline, and attention to detail. If you want easygoing and carefree, look elsewhere. But if relentless intensity is your thing, it served Girardi well for a decade managing the New York Yankees.
It figured to work for him here, too. When he got hired, the Phillies had neither made the playoffs nor finished with a winning record in eight seasons. But they paid big bucks for Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, Jake Arrieta, and later that offseason, Didi Gregorius and Zack Wheeler. And owner John Middleton believed Girardi could bring structure to the clubhouse after two years of nonconformist Gabe Kapler.
But good organizations incorporate youth, even in complementary roles, every year. One knock on Girardi late in his Yankees tenure, even as they assimilated Gary Sánchez, Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, and others into their core, was that he could be slow to trust young players.
It’s both inaccurate and unfair to pin the Phillies’ failings with young players on Girardi. The player-development staff bears much of that responsibility and was overhauled late last season by president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski.
Did you happen to notice, though, that Bryson Stott, Nick Maton, Alec Bohm, and Mickey Moniak just combined to go 9-for-32 with eight RBIs in the three-game sweep of the swooning Los Angeles Angels — after Girardi got fired on Friday?
And then came this from Harper after Stott’s walk-off three-run homer Sunday: “Being able to put our trust in our young guys the last couple days and really just let them play, it’s been great. Our young guys have got to play. When you want your young guys to have success, they have to play every day. And when they have those opportunities, I think they’re going to take full advantage of that, if that’s Bryson, if that’s Maton, if that’s Bohmer, or anybody else.”
» READ MORE: Who is new Phillies interim manager Rob Thomson?
Harper didn’t refer specifically to Girardi. But it was impossible to hear those words and not think about the shortness of the deposed manager’s leash, be it with Moniak last year or fellow center fielder Adam Haseley in 2020. Maton got 131 plate appearances last year compared to 344 for veteran utilityman Ronald Torreyes.
Even Stott, touted as the Phillies’ future shortstop, went through recent four- and five-day stretches of sitting on the bench in favor of veteran utilityman Johan Camargo even though Gregorius was injured.
It’s too soon to know how much faith interim manager Rob Thomson will show in the kids. But Stott started all three games against the Angels; Moniak started twice; Maton might have started over the weekend if he hadn’t sprained his left shoulder Friday night while diving to catch a pop fly in shallow right field.
“They bring energy every day,” Thomson said, “and we need energy.”
Girardi often seemed to place greater emphasis on track records. Maybe it was the weight of a decade-long playoff drought, never more than this season when Dombrowski effectively made Girardi a lame duck by deferring a decision on picking up his 2023 option. Maybe it was just the way Girardi is wired. He isn’t easily loosened up, which may make him less inclined to turn young players loose.
Haseley, for example, was labeled by then-general manager Matt Klentak as the likely center fielder entering 2020. But Girardi platooned Haseley with Roman Quinn in the pandemic-shortened season, when there wasn’t much time for players to learn on the job. Last year, Haseley won a tepid spring training competition with Quinn, Odúbel Herrera, and Scott Kingery. He started opening day, then left the team two weeks later for personal reasons.
At no point did Haseley gain Girardi’s trust. In March, the Phillies cast him off to the Chicago White Sox for a double-A reliever to open a spot on the 40-man roster.
Moniak’s chance to take over in center field last year lasted all of about one week. The former No. 1 overall pick started seven of nine games after getting called up from triple A, went 3-for-25 with 12 strikeouts, and got replaced by Herrera. Girardi gave Moniak a total of nine plate appearances over four subsequent call-ups.
If not for a strong spring training this year, Moniak may have been headed down the same path with the Phillies as Haseley, a 2017 first-round pick.
Bohm’s impressive 44-game rookie season bought him four months of Girardi’s patience last year. But he was sent to triple A in August and had to wrest the third-base job back from Stott and especially Camargo early in the season. Kingery regressed in 2020, although that was due more to injuries than Girardi’s allocation of playing time.
Maybe most of those players, all of whom were high draft picks and prospects in the minors, won’t turn into core members of a contending team. But Girardi’s reluctance in most cases to give them a run of consistent playing time wasn’t helping their chances.
Thomson probably can afford to let the kids play because, well, what is there to lose?
He took over a team that was 22-29 and 12 games out of first place, with a 21.1% chance of making the playoffs, according to Fangraphs. If he lets Stott and Moniak, in particular, play every day and the Phillies climb back into the race, it will reflect well on Thomson’s chances of getting the interim tag removed from his title. If not, few people figured the Phillies would turn it around anyway.
Girardi didn’t get fired because of his handling of young players. If the Phillies played passable defense and didn’t have one of the majors’ worst bullpens — problems that reflect more on the roster construction than the manager — he would still have a job.
But Girardi also never seemed comfortable with playing the kids. And if the Phillies are going to turn around their season, it’s clear the kids will need to play a vital role.