Finding the Goldilocks Zone has been a difficult chore for Phillies managing partner John Middleton. Tasked with running the franchise in the middle of the last decade after the late David Montgomery fell ill, Middleton has been trying to find the right formula to not only get his team back to the playoffs, but to also make them a perennial contender in a heavyweight division.
Since taking charge, he has been ultra aggressive in a variety of ways. With the Phillies in the early stages of a rebuild, Middleton hired Andy MacPhail as team president and Matt Klentak as general manager and ordered them to create an analytics department almost from scratch.
That mission was accomplished, but the debate about its benefits and the best way to impart the knowledge revealed by the numbers and techniques led to tension within the organization and without yielding a significant rise in the standings.
Middleton has pumped money into the payroll, signing big-ticket free agents like Jake Arrieta, Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper, Zack Wheeler, J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius. Arrieta did not work out so well, but the rest of the names on that list have.
And still it hasn’t been enough to overcome the other roster deficiencies.
When the Gabe Kapler managerial experiment resulted in consecutive September collapses in 2018 and 2019, Middleton turned to Joe Girardi, a manager with a mix of old-school and analytics thinking who already has a World Series ring. A pandemic and another September fade ensued. Girardi, understandably, gets another shot at success in 2021.
Klentak, despite having two years left on his contract, did not get a sixth chance to take the Phillies back to the postseason and, as was the case when he searched for a manager to replace Kapler, Middleton shot for the stars when looking for a new front-office leader, obsessing on one decision-making guru in particular.
Welcome to Philadelphia, Dave Dombrowski.
It took some time and convincing to get to that point with the biggest factor being that Dombrowski’s desire to build a baseball team from scratch in Nashville was not going to come to fruition for quite some time.
“From the moment we decided to make a change, Andy and I prioritized Dave as the best person for the job,” Middleton said via email. “He is the only GM in the history of baseball who has taken three different teams to the World Series and one of only five GMs who have won a World Series with two different teams.
“To accomplish all that, a person has to have, among other skills, a great baseball eye for players, coaches and executive talent. Plus you have to have very high standards and an ability to work with different personalities and motivate them to meet his standards and achieve greatness.”
Perhaps nobody in baseball knows Dombrowski better than Jim Leyland. They were together as a manager-GM tandem for two years in Miami and eight more in Detroit, winning a World Series with the Marlins in 1997 and four division titles and two American League pennants with the Tigers.
“He’s a very demanding man, but he will never ask his people to work any harder than he is willing to work himself,” Leyland said during a telephone interview. “He knows how to run a meeting as well as any GM in baseball I’ve ever been around and he knows how to run an entire organization. The Phillies are very fortunate to have him.”
It was immediately clear that Middleton has put his full trust in Dombrowski. The offseason was already six weeks old when the Phillies hired Dombrowski and there were questions about how much money Middleton and the Buck cousins — Jim and Pete — would be willing to spend.
“Shortly after he started, Dave suggested he give me three payroll budgets,” Middleton said.
Each of the suggested budgetary categories came with labels: rebuild, treading water and competitive with a chance to reach the postseason.
“Dave felt strongly that we have an excellent core with Bryce, Rhys [Hoskins], Alec [Bohm], Aaron [Nola], Zack [Wheeler] and Zach [Eflin],” Middleton said. “He described who he’d be able to pursue to fill our holes for each of the three budgets. By the end of those conversations, Dave had convinced me [and subsequently we convinced Jim and Pete Buck] that we could legitimately compete for the division with the most aggressive payroll budget, which included the record-breaking commitment to J.T.”
Who knows what the other budgets would have wrought. Who cares? The Phillies spent more money in free agency than every team in baseball except the Toronto Blue Jays and will head into the season with the fifth-highest payroll in the game.
If a guy with two World Series rings and four World Series appearances thinks your team is good enough to compete in perhaps the deepest division in baseball, it is worth going for it.
“When I started looking at the possibilities with Harper and then bringing Realmuto and Didi back and then you add in McCutchen and Hoskins and a young star like Alec Bohm and this is definitely not a club that should consider itself starting from scratch,” Dombrowski said. “And then you look at the top of the rotation with Nola and Wheeler and Eflin and you realize if this team plays well and then also gets some breaks, it can compete. I know it’s a tough division, but there’s a lot of talent here, too.”
Spending ownership’s money is something any front-office person can do. What will likely define Dombrowski’s first season with the Phillies is how he filled out the roster. Will his bullpen additions — Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Brandon Kintzler and Sam Coonrod — solve the team’s biggest problem from a year ago? Will Matt Moore and Chase Anderson strengthen the back of the starting rotation? Will Brad Miller and Matt Joyce make the bench better?
The answer to those questions will likely determine if John Middleton finally has found the man to get the Phillies where they have not been in such a long time.