From start to finish, most of the attention was on the manager who promised laser focus. Gabe Kapler became the Phillies' lightning rod and drove the team narrative from the day he prematurely took the ball out of Aaron Nola's hands in Atlanta through the 2018 standings crash.
To be fair, there was a lot of good in between for the Phillies, but the manager's first season will be remembered as a successful one only if the team becomes a perennial playoff contender from this point forward.
The good news for Matt Klentak, the third-year general manager still in search of his first winning season, was that Kapler's presence kept the focus off him. That is about to change. The offseason is always about the general manager and Klentak has to get this one right. A fourth straight losing season under his watch would be unacceptable and possibly even grounds for dismissal.
Let's not forget that Andy MacPhail's first act as team president was to fire former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who at the time was in the first year of the Phillies' rebuilding plan. It did not matter that Amaro had been the GM for three of the team's five NL East championship teams from 2007 through 2011 or that he had taken the team to the World Series in 2009.
The Phillies, with a mandate from managing general partner John Middleton, were ready to fly into the analytics age and they certainly weren't interested in lifting off with Amaro as their pilot. The Phillies are into analytics full bore now, but we are still waiting for the flight plan that lands them at the top of the division.
Klentak, as expected, saw 2018 as a step in the right direction, even though the team fell through a trap door and into a bottomless pit during the second week of August.
"Without question," Klentak said during his Monday media session at Citizens Bank Park. "We won 14 more games than we did the year before. The last six weeks have been about as hard a professional six-week period as I've ever been through. I'm not alone in this organization in feeling that. I know that that's true for our fans as well. It's been really hard."
The much harder part begins immediately. In order to be a definite playoff team in 2019, the Phillies will need another double-digit jump in victories next season. Only five teams in baseball had a double-digit increase in wins this season, so that obviously will not be easy. And it will be on the general manager to make that happen because regardless of what you thought about the way Kapler managed in 2018, the fact that the Phillies came up short of .500 again had less to do with that and more with the team's talent level.
The general manager was asked Monday to evaluate his own 2018 performance.
"The best way I can answer that is through examples," Klentak said. "We talked about [Jake] Arrieta and [Carlos] Santana and our free-agent class, which also included [Tommy] Hunter and [Pat] Neshek and I'm certainly not going to come up here and brag about how great our free-agent class was because you guys watched our season and our initial question [Monday] was are you disappointed in that. But just understanding how baseball works, that was the fourth most productive free-agent class in baseball this year."
That statement was based on total wins above replacement for each team's free-agent class, and the Phillies' top four free agents combined for a 7.1 WAR. Klentak was sincere in saying that was nothing to brag about, but his decisions to sign all of the above can be defended.
Arrieta, even though he collapsed in unison with the club, still posted a 3.0 WAR, according to BaseballReference.com, which ranked second on the Phillies and among the top 50 pitchers in baseball. Sure, Arrieta was overpaid at $30 million this season, but he was a very good pitcher through his first 22 starts, going 9-6 with a 3.11 ERA.
Santana, with a career-low .229 batting average, did not generate nearly the same excitement as the previous first baseman who left the Cleveland Indians to join the Phillies, but when you look at his career numbers across the board they matched pretty closely with what he did in 2018. Move him to sixth or seventh in a batting order and he'd probably be more tolerable, but now with Rhys Hoskins' potential move back to first base, the Phillies could have a difficult time finding a good place for Santana to play.
Neshek posted a 2.59 ERA, but he did not join the bullpen until July. Hunter finished relatively strong, but carried a 5.04 ERA into July.
Klentak did not crap out with the roughly $65 million he spent on free agents, but he did not come close to hitting the jackpot either. The good news for him and the Phillies is that the money the GM spent last offseason will not prevent him from spending a much larger sum on either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper this winter. The pressure is on Klentak to get one or the other, and it had better be the right guy.
"I think as a general rule we did fine in free agency, if not better than fine," Klentak said. "I think also to back up – GMs are generally not popular during a rebuild because there is a lot of losing that happens. I know that. I knew that when I took this job and I know that even more today."