The Eagles are not the only team in town with a quarterback problem. John Middleton, the billionaire managing partner of the Phillies, is having his own signal-caller issues. That’s why his Sunday on the Main Line became every bit as miserable as Carson Wentz’s bench-sitting experience at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
Middleton must have spit up his Sunday morning coffee when he saw the ESPN story that said the Phillies are facing a financial crunch and are willing to listen to offers for Zack Wheeler, the elite starter the team signed just last offseason for five years and $118 million. The idea of trading him after he had a terrific first season in Philadelphia ranks right up there with going for it on fourth-and-3 from your own 30-yard line in the middle of the first quarter.
ESPN did not make up this story. It likely came from front-office sources working for other organizations. Perhaps acting general manager Ned Rice floated the idea to another general manager without consulting Middleton or team president Andy MacPhail, both of whom offered vehement denials that the Phillies are shopping Wheeler.
“If they offered me Babe Ruth, I wouldn’t trade [Wheeler],” Middleton told ESPN.
He might want to reconsider that line of thinking because Ruth will only become available if he is resurrected from his current state, at which point he would have supernatural abilities beyond those he once displayed with the Yankees.
Anyway, Middleton has an obvious problem of his own creation and there is also an obvious solution. The most abnormal season in baseball history was also one of the greatest failures in the history of a franchise that has endured more than its fair share. It led to the resignation of general manager Matt Klentak and a couple of news conferences that have caused a ball of confusion about what the Phillies’ plans are this offseason and for next season.
Confidence in a franchise tends to erode when it goes nine straight seasons without a playoff appearance and a winning record. That’s when fans look to the owner for hope and change, but Middleton provided only half-hearted change and little hope following the 2020 season.
“We don’t really have a firm timetable,” Middleton said when asked how long it would take to replace Klentak as general manager in early October. “I think one of the things that’s really going to potentially play havoc with this offseason is COVID. Right now, our offices aren’t even open. So if you had somebody new today, they can’t go into the office to work. They can’t meet people. They can’t work with people. It’s hard. Holding Zoom meetings only goes so far, particularly when you are establishing relationships.
“So I think that’s going to play a factor in terms of our timetable. I think we have to be flexible and we have to be nimble. So we’ll go out and see. And who knows how COVID is going to play in potential candidates’ minds — whether they’re going to come conservative and say, ‘I want to stay where I am because I know where I am and I feel safe here.’ Or they say they want to take a chance and move out to a new job and a new organization. I can’t tell you.”
So it’s essential to have face-to-face encounters before hiring front-office leaders, but not so essential to have scouts get first-hand looks at potential players that could help the team on the field. That, of course, is a reference to the list of pro scouts the Phillies let go in late October. Since then, they’ve also cut additional employees from the business and baseball operations side, bringing the total purge to right around 80. In the middle of all that, there was an Associated Press report that the Phillies lost $145 million during the pandemic season without fans and, of course, there remains lingering doubt about whether the team will be able to re-sign catcher J.T. Realmuto.
Given all those stories, it’s not unreasonable for Phillies fans to think the worst about their favorite team. Add in the sad history of a big-market team sometimes spending like it played in a small market and it’s easy to understand the growing concern about what direction the Phillies are headed.
Perception can become a real monster and right now the public perception of the Phillies is that they do not have much of a clue. MacPhail’s Zoom call at the end of October did not help the team’s case when he made it clear the Phillies were not in a rush to make front-office regime changes or upgrade personnel on the field.
Now, the winter meetings have begun and baseball has figured out a way to virtually conduct them. Meanwhile, we are still waiting for Middleton to hire a head of baseball operations. There have been reports that former Miami general manager Michael Hill and Los Angeles Dodgers senior vice president of baseball operations Josh Byrnes have been interviewed twice, presumably for the job of baseball operations president.
If those are the two finalists for the job, then Middleton needs to hire one sooner rather than later. He needs to make sure that person becomes the voice of the franchise and restores confidence in what the team is doing. Before the 2020 season, Middleton’s aggressive approach to free agency and his pursuit of Joe Girardi as manager had provided hope but not results.
Middleton and his ownership partners — Jim and Pete Buck — have pumped money into the franchise over the last five years and it would be foolish to think that they want to go through a rebuilding process in Girardi’s second season and Bryce Harper’s third. Middleton and the Bucks just need better people making the baseball decisions and they need them now.