John Middleton flew his private jet — the white, two-engine plane with a Phillies logo on the tail — across the country last year, meeting after the season with various players to determine the future of manager Gabe Kapler. It took Middleton, the team’s principal owner, 10 days to ultimately decide that Kapler would be fired.
He’s not in the air this week, but Middleton is believed to be taking a similarly rigorous approach as he decides to either retain or fire general manager Matt Klentak. There was no news Tuesday from the Phillies about the status of Klentak, and there are no indications that a decision is coming quickly.
Last season, the Phillies collapsed in September for the second-straight season, and the manager lost his job. This year, a third-straight collapse has the team’s architect in the crosshairs. But Middleton’s decision this offseason comes with implications brought by the coronavirus pandemic.
Two weeks ago, the Phillies offered their full-time employees a voluntary-separation package in hopes that it would allow the team to lay off fewer employees after a season in which Middleton said he expected to lose “substantially more than $100 million.” Employees received an email Tuesday that the buyout packages had been increased, after so few employees accepted the first offer.
"The club hopes that with meaningful participation, any further reduction in the workforce will be less severe,” the Phillies said.
The Phillies are expected to lay off employees next month, with the cuts possibly including employees who have worked for the team for decades and spent the summer at the ballpark during the pandemic, taking on different jobs to remain productive. In June, the team cut salaries for all employees who make at least $90,000. Now, it is eliminating jobs, perhaps in anticipation of another year of lost revenue in 2021.
It could be hard for Middleton to justify laying off employees to cut costs while firing Klentak but paying him for two more seasons, since the GM is under contract through 2022.
There’s also the difficulties of replacing such an important decision-maker during a pandemic. When hiring Klentak, Phillies president Andy MacPhail stationed himself in Chicago and interviewed prospective GM candidates in person before flying the finalists to Philadelphia to meet Middleton.
If the Phillies had to hire a GM next month, those interviews might have to be conducted via video conferencing. The new hire would then need to assemble his staff and meet the current Phillies using similar methods. It might not be ideal, but it’s not impossible in the current climate.
The Angels fired general manager Billy Eppler on Sunday and will hire a replacement during the pandemic, proving that the Phillies can, too, if they decide to move on from Klentak. But it is something for Middleton to consider as he weighs such an important decision.
The Phillies entered the season with the seventh-highest payroll but finished four games below .500 and a game out of the playoffs after the postseason was expanded to eight teams. Klentak said before the season that the Phillies had the talent, the manager, and the ownership to win. It was time, he said, to “produce a winning season and play baseball in October.”
“We’ve reached a place where it is time to win,” Klentak said last October, after hiring Joe Girardi. “No questions asked, it is time to win right now.”
A year later, the Phillies are not playing October baseball, as the National League begins another postseason on Wednesday without them. And for the second-straight year, Middleton is weighing a franchise-altering decision. But this one does not seem to be as simple as the one he made a year ago.