John Middleton couldn’t have been happy.
Not after he’d spent the Eagles’ home opener in the owner’s box of his billionaire buddy, Jeffrey Lurie, and watched Lurie’s bold-thinking team win Sunday afternoon — then, three days later, watched this:
At 10:41 p.m. Wednesday, in front of the smallest crowd of the year, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson caught the 27th out off the bat of demoted Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco. That play completed a dominant outing from Dallas Keuchel, who beat Zach Eflin.
Keuchel and Donaldson could have been Phillies. They are not because the Phillies brain trust chose to not pay them during their “stupid money” offseason. Apparently, the Phillies weren’t stupid enough.
Will Middleton act as boldly as Lurie did in 2015? Will Middleton dynamite his front office? Will he dismiss Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak?
If so, rest assured: The events of Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park will factor into that decision.
Franco, who hit .231 with a .702 OPS in 102 games through Aug. 3, had spent almost a month in the minors before the rosters expanded in September, and Franco didn’t even start Wednesday. Bench veteran and fan policeman Sean Rodriguez, hitting .210, did. Eflin had been briefly demoted to the bullpen before injury and ineptness summoned him back into the rotation; he fell to 8-12 with a 4.20 earned-run average (1-5 and 5.81 since June 29).
Ah, what might have been. Donaldson, 33, was hurt in 2018, but the Braves gave him a one-year deal and $23 million, and he’s been a bargain. He finished the game hitting .258, and his 37 home runs and .921 OPS are far better than any Phillie’s.
Keuchel improved to 8-5 with a 3.35 earned-run average, which would be tied for the second-most wins among Phillies starters and would be the second-best win percentage. His ERA would, by far, be the team’s best.
Middleton loves numbers, so he is certainly aware of these. Keuchel and Donaldson could have helped the young Phillies return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Instead, they’re helping the young Braves win the division for the second year in a row.
Middleton cannot be pleased with Andy MacPhail, the team’s president, who hired Klentak, the general manager, to oversee the distribution of Middleton’s idiotic funds.
To be fair, no team offered Keuchel what he wanted in March -- six years and $120 million, despite flagging fastball velocity, at the age of 31. A league source said the Phillies weren’t willing to offer more than one year.
But plenty of teams kicked Keuchel’s tires in May, when he adjusted his demands and held workouts to prove his fitness, preparing to sign in June, after teams no longer would forfeit a draft pick to sign him. The Braves snagged him for $13 million on June 7. A league source said the Phillies valued Keuchel at about half that price. Keuchel said they never called.
If the Phillies’ analytics-centric front office made an egregious mistake in its valuation of Donaldson, it made a mistake in its valuation of Keuchel -- twice in two months. These mistakes will prove catastrophic if the Phillies fail to secure the second wild-card playoff slot.
It was Middleton who coined the “stupid money” phrase, and Middleton who insisted that these Phillies should reach the postseason. It will be Middleton whose lust for relevance will grapple with his desire for patience.
Lurie lost patience. He was in Middleton’s shoes just four years ago.
Back in 2013 Lurie made the mistake of hiring the arrogant Chip Kelly, who convinced Lurie that numbers matter more than people. Lurie amplified his own error in 2015, when he gave Kelly total control of the franchise, which Kelly promptly destroyed.
However, 15 games into the 2015 season, Lurie fired Kelly, prepared to eat $13 million -- the last two years of Kelly’s salary -- admitting that he was wrong. Lurie then hired Doug Pederson to coach his players and eventually hired Joe Douglas to evaluate his players, and two years later Lurie won the Super Bowl.
Will Middleton, in his quest to win a World Series, admit the same thing? Will he eat three years of Matt Klentak’s newly extended contract? The final two years of president Andy MacPhail’s? The final year of manager Gabe Kapler’s deal?
Middleton wants nothing more than to please the masses, and there haven’t been three men so despised in Philadelphia since Jimmy Johnson, Jerry Jones, and Michael Irvin visited Veterans Stadium once a year.
Maybe Middleton will make the moves. Maybe he showed his hand last month, when he got sick of watching his overthinking hitters swing like robots, and replaced young, clever analytics disciple John Mallee with old, wise baseball man Charlie Manuel.
Or maybe not.
Maybe Middleton will regard the proper evaluation of $330 million newcomer Bryce Harper and the trade for generational catcher J.T. Realmuto as reason enough to give Klentak and MacPhail a few more chances.
Maybe Middleton will rationalize that a team that loses seven of its top eight relievers to injury is lucky to sniff .500.
Maybe Middleton will philosophize that it’s perfectly acceptable that all four young starters -- Eflin, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, and Jerad Eickhoff -- regressed in the biggest season of their careers; regressed after Klentak fired veteran pitching coach Rick Kranitz so the Phillies wouldn’t lose assistant pitching coach (and numbers whiz) Chris Young to the Marlins or Braves.
Or maybe Middleton took a look in the Braves dugout and saw -- you guessed it -- Braves pitching coach RIck Kranitz, smiling and happy. Oops.
But then, Middleton’s a stubborn sort. Maybe he will rationalize all of the mistakes -- Keuchel, Donaldson, Krantiz, etc. -- and he’ll give MacPhail, and Klentak, and even Gabe Kapler, one more year to try to reach the playoffs.