After firing Joe Girardi, it’s up to Dave Dombrowski to fix the Phillies’ biggest problems
A porous defense and combustible bullpen have been weaknesses since Girardi got hired after the 2019 season. Dombrowski will need to figure out how to fix those issues on the fly.
The last manager to get fired by the Phillies never needed an explanation for why they let him go.
“Didn’t win enough baseball games,” Gabe Kapler said the other day.
It really is that simple, even though the job overflows with nuance. There are lineups to configure, bullpens to run, in-game moves to make, egos to stroke, and messages to send that will get 26 players to buy in on a nightly basis for six months. But in the end, managers are judged by their team’s won-lost record.
And just as the Phillies’ 161-163 record in two seasons under Kapler wasn’t good enough, neither was their 132-141 mark under Joe Girardi, who got axed Friday by president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski.
Nobody with the Phillies thought a 22-29 record and a 12-game deficit in the National League East were acceptable, especially given their $238 million payroll, fourth-highest in the sport. Girardi was complicit in that disappointment and predictably paid with his job.
“We underperformed and that falls on me,” Girardi said Friday in a previously scheduled weekly appearance on MLB Network Radio. “So, this is what happens.”
Still, firing the manager is a desperate move by a team that has few ways to turn around its season other than to shock the players into playing better. Because it’s impossible not to notice that the Phillies’ most glaring problems this season have been chronic Achilles’ heels throughout Girardi’s tenure.
In 2020, the Phillies had the third-fewest defensive runs saved, according to Sports Info Solutions, and the worst bullpen ERA of any team in baseball. In 2021, they ranked last in DRS and 25th in bullpen ERA. This year: last again in DRS, 21st in bullpen ERA.
It’s ingrained in who they are. The Phillies hand out extra outs like Kit Kats on Halloween, creating additional stress on the pitchers. And they routinely cough up late-inning leads, rendering losses all the more demoralizing.
Girardi had shortcomings, too. His intensity could be unrelenting, which didn’t always create the most relaxed environment, especially for young players. He could also be inflexible. Although his policy of not using a reliever on three consecutive days early in a season has usually served his teams well, it turned a potentially uplifting victory into a devastating loss May 24 in Atlanta when he stuck with Nick Nelson in the ninth inning rather than pushing closer Corey Knebel.
But interim manager Rob Thomson will be saddled with the same defense, bullpen, and Frankenstein’s monster of a roster that let down Girardi for three years running. And now, the focus shifts to Dombrowski, who must figure out how to improve the club’s two most damaging weaknesses on the fly.
Let’s examine those issues:
In putting together their roster this year, the Yankees conceded they were among the worst defensive teams in baseball and made three moves to do something about it.
They acquired slick-fielding Isiah Kiner-Falefa to play shortstop, which enabled Gleyber Torres to move to second base; they traded Gary Sánchez and installed Kyle Higashioka and Jose Trevino as the catching tandem; they re-signed Gold Glove first baseman Anthony Rizzo and dealt Luke Voit.
The result: The Bronx Bombers’ offense isn’t quite as scary, but the team is more well-rounded.
“You don’t want to be a one-trick pony,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told reporters last month.
For two years, the Phillies have taken the opposite approach. Rather than transforming the roster to improve their defense, the Phillies leaned into the dysfunction, beefing up the offense by bringing back Didi Gregorius last year (rather than signing light-hitting Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons) and adding sluggers Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos this spring in an effort to hit over their mistakes.
“I know we’re not going to be the best defensive club,” Dombrowski said in spring training. “But I think if we catch the ball and make the plays we can, we can be adequate. And that’s all you ask for a club like ours.”
Well, maybe not if the Phillies had traded for center fielder Kevin Kiermaier. They discussed a potential deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, a major league source said before the owners locked out the players and froze transactions for 99 days in the middle of the offseason. But Kiermaier is in the final year of a backloaded $53 million contract that would have put the Phillies over the luxury-tax threshold, a step ownership didn’t decide to take until spring training.
In hindsight, Kiermaier might have fit better within the overall roster. He’s a below-average hitter (.717 career OPS, .663 this season through Thursday) but a three-time Gold Glove winner who would have stabilized the Phillies’ outfield. He also played in 28 postseason games over the last three years.
Instead, the Phillies doubled down on offense at the expense of defense, signing Schwarber and Castellanos for a total of $179 million at a time when the baseball isn’t carrying over the fence with as much frequency. In keeping with that trend, Castellanos and Schwarber through Thursday saw .145 and .125 dips in slugging from last season, respectively. Rhys Hoskins was down .098 from last year.
The problem has been compounded by the torn elbow ligament that has relegated Bryce Harper to designated hitting and left Schwarber and Castellanos to play the outfield. But even before Harper’s injury, the puzzle pieces didn’t line up neatly from a positional standpoint.
“I think the pieces are the pieces that they have,” Girardi said in his radio interview. “This is more of an offensive/starting pitching club. And I think we knew that the defense — there’s some physical limitations. They can only run so fast and cover so much ground.”
Since 2003, only seven teams made the playoffs despite ranking worse than the 2021 Phillies in defensive runs saved: the 2004 and 2005 Yankees, 2013 and 2014 Detroit Tigers, 2013 Oakland Athletics, 2009 Boston Red Sox, and 2011 Phillies. All but the 2011 Phillies finished among the top three in their league in runs. The Phillies were seventh in the NL through Thursday.
Turning the overall team defense from wretched to respectable is nearly impossible during a season. But the Yankees went from 41 fewer runs saved than average last season to 15 more than average so far this year, proving it can be done with a series of smart moves.
There’s nothing quite as deflating as blowing a late lead to lose a game. It’s a punch to a team’s collective gut. And since Girardi got hired, no team has blown more saves — 51 and counting — than the Phillies.
“You said it,” Harper said after the May 24 game in Atlanta.
Only the names of the relievers change. During Girardi’s tenure, the Phillies have cycled through Tommy Hunter, Héctor Neris, David Robertson, Brandon Workman, David Phelps, Heath Hembree, Archie Bradley, Ian Kennedy, and countless other veteran late-inning relievers. Yet their collective 5.00 bullpen ERA since 2020 is second-worst in the majors behind only Colorado (5.37). They have been outscored 445-416 from the seventh inning on — 132-84 in the ninth inning alone.
In recasting the bullpen again this year, the Phillies stuck to one-year deals for Knebel and fellow free agents Jeurys Familia and Brad Hand. They could have used more help. Knebel had not closed since 2018 with the Milwaukee Brewers. Seranthony Domínguez, who has closer-quality stuff, missed most of the last three seasons because of an elbow injury that necessitated Tommy John surgery. Left-hander José Alvarado posted a 7.62 ERA in 17 appearances and got sent to triple A.
The bullpen has the highest walk rate in the majors (11.7%), with Girardi noting that the Phillies sometimes prioritized pure stuff over command. It also lacks the depth needed to suit Girardi’s philosophy of reliever usage. Meanwhile, the Phillies let Neris leave for a two-year deal from the Houston Astros, and he has a 2.01 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 22⅓ innings.
“It’s hard to put your finger completely on it, but I know they’re much better than what they’ve pitched,” Girardi said. “I really think there are better days for the bullpen.”
Assistant general manager Ani Kilambi, hired away from the Rays last fall, came with a reputation for helping to build up Tampa Bay’s formidable pitching depth. In time, maybe he will improve the Phillies’ ability to turn up quality pitchers who were overlooked by other teams.
But that didn’t help save Girardi.
And unless it changes quickly, it won’t be much help to Thomson, either.