John Middleton admits he isn’t a “baseball person.” He didn’t play the game in college or professionally and doesn’t watch it with a scout’s eye. He hasn’t run a draft room, overseen a farm system, or staked his reputation on projecting a prospect’s future.
The Phillies managing partner hires folks to do those things.
But Middleton is a baseball fan – a Phillies devotee, to be specific – going on about 60 years. He followed his hometown team from before the collapse of 1964 through Black Friday in 1977 and the World Series championship in 1980, then bought an ownership stake in 1994.
So, if you’re curious about the franchise’s identity over the decades, Middleton is the man to ask.
“I think the problem the Phillies have had for a hundred years is they don’t evaluate talent well,” he said Saturday, when general manager Matt Klentak agreed to step down after five consecutive non-winning seasons. “It was the problem a hundred years ago. It was the problem 50 years ago. There have been two periods in the Phillies history where we had bursts that resulted in two World Series [champion] teams, and other than that, we’ve been hit and miss.”
Klentak was supposed to change all that. Massachusetts-born and Ivy League-bred, he came here five years ago as a whiz kid, a scion of the Theo Epstein generation of executives who could turn an old-fashioned front office into a cutting-edge data and analytics powerhouse. Having fallen behind the Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs, and almost everyone else, they found the person to bring them up to speed.
But in discussing Klentak’s demotion (he will be reassigned, the team said), Middleton painted a picture of an executive who got dragged down in the legacy of losing more games than any team in North American pro sports history. Even as the luxury-tax payroll soared from $103.1 million in 2016 to an estimated $207.6 million this year – an increase of 101.3% – the Phillies under Klentak couldn’t grow enough talent, especially pitching, to push through into the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
“Matt’s had a pretty successful track rate with free agents. We just haven’t been able to bring up the people internally to support them,” Middleton said. “We just haven’t produced the guys. We haven’t produced the talent yet, and that’s a problem that’s haunted us.”
Middleton referenced Pat Gillick, one of the few general managers in Phillies history to accomplish that. To be fair, Gillick inherited a homegrown core procured by former assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle and others, then improved the rest of the roster to win the World Series in 2008. But the point stands that Gillick succeeded in ways that Klentak never could.
It’s a stinging indictment because the Phillies allowed Klentak to tear it down to the studs and rebuild, a process that began in 2015 under Ruben Amaro Jr.
In 2016, Klentak’s first draft, the Phillies had the first overall pick and took high school outfielder Mickey Moniak, who reached the big leagues in September because the Phillies lacked depth to cover a spate of injuries. Middleton defended that pick, calling it a “skim-milk year” for first-round talent, but conveniently overlooked that the third overall pick, pitcher Ian Anderson, shined as a rookie this season for the Atlanta Braves and dominated the Cincinnati Reds in a wild-card game the other day.
Klentak traded the Phillies' top pitching prospect before the 2019 season, and Sixto Sanchez had an electrifying rookie year for the Division Series-bound Miami Marlins. The deal, which brought star catcher J.T. Realmuto, was roundly applauded at the time. But the Phillies were unable to sign Realmuto to a contract extension and now face losing him in free agency.
“I don’t hold that against Matt at all,” Middleton said, although he later claimed that his stance on the trade was, “If you don’t extend J.T., I wouldn’t trade Sixto. The baseball people thought they could get the extension.”
In five drafts under Klentak, the Phillies have thus far graduated seven players to the majors, including third baseman Alec Bohm, a Rookie of the Year candidate. More will likely follow. But they didn’t arrive swiftly enough or make an impact that satisfied Middleton, who has spent more than $700 million on free agents in the last three offseasons but lacks a postseason appearance to show for it.
“You can’t build a championship team around free agents, and we just don’t have the internal players coming up to really field the competitive team that we need,” Middleton said. “It was the number one mandate I gave [team president] Andy [MacPhail] and Matt when they came in.”
So, Klentak took the fall. MacPhail, who led the hiring of Klentak but didn’t provide much oversight in baseball operations, will stay on with one year left on his contract and an expected retirement after the 2021 season. Middleton said MacPhail’s “attention will shift much more to the baseball side now than it was a month ago.” Ned Rice, Klentak’s top assistant, will step in as interim GM, a tag that won’t be removed any time soon if the Phillies are unable to conduct a proper search because of COVID-19 travel and workplace restrictions.
But the problem goes beyond Klentak, and Middleton seems to realize as much.
Last year, the Phillies hired a new amateur scouting director (Brian Barber) away from the Yankees. Two years ago, they brought in a new farm director (Josh Bonifay) from the Astros. Middleton conceded that an even closer inspection under the hood might be necessary to correct an organizational flaw that, save for two brief periods (mid-'70s to early-'80s, mid-2000s to 2011), has defined the Phillies for more than a century.
“This is a systemic problem," Middleton said. "Frankly, it’s not a problem of Matt’s making. It’s been a problem forever with the Phillies. You take away those two windows I’ve talked about and it’s been throwing darts. Look at the draft picks starting in ’03 after Cole Hamels and look at what they’ve done and haven’t done. It’s really frustrating to try to make those changes.