Three days after the World Series ended, two days before free agents can begin signing with new teams, the person whose name is listed second on the Phillies' company directory actually spoke these words, out loud, to a bunch of reporters on a Zoom call:
“I certainly don’t want to be an impediment. If [managing partner] John [Middleton] thinks he can land a big fish by moving me aside and getting somebody to become the president, I would happily do that.”
So now we know: Andy MacPhail really is the lamest of ducks.
The Phillies president has one year left on a three-year contract extension, and for 35 minutes Friday, he made it clearer than the rustic view of autumn leaves outside the office window in his Maryland home that he has no interest in staying on beyond the 2021 season to finish the job that he was hired five years ago to do: lead a proud franchise through a full-scale rebuilding and back to pennant contention in the National League.
This should be great news, actually, for Middleton. He’s off the hook for protecting the good name of a third-generation baseball executive whose father and grandfather are both in the Hall of Fame. If Middleton wants to remove MacPhail from the club presidency, as he did Matt Klentak from the general manager’s chair four weeks ago, and hire, say, Los Angeles Dodgers vice president of baseball operations Josh Byrnes or free-agent executive Dave Dombrowski, he should -- nay, he must -- go right ahead.
Heck, MacPhail is almost begging for it.
You could hear it in his voice. The 67-year-old architect of World Series-winning teams in Minnesota 33 and 29 years ago talked as much about the Phillies' “next regime” as he did about the current one, the status of which can only be described as a cross between in-flux and rudderless. He challenged Middleton to be “completely invested” and take a “more hands-on role than he did last time” in hiring new baseball-operations leadership.
MacPhail also lamented the impact of COVID-19 on the sport’s short- and long-term future. Amid commissioner Rob Manfred’s claim that the 30 teams combined for $3 billion in operational losses this year and the Phillies' decision to reduce staff through buyouts, layoffs, and contract lapses, MacPhail described this as “about as miserable a time in baseball as I have ever had, by far.”
“It’s not pretty,” he continued. “It’s unlike a strike. You can plan for a strike. Strikes have different periods. But something like this caught us in a bad spot. We had just expanded the operation. We had expanded the payroll. We had been active in signing free agents like [Zack] Wheeler and [Bryce] Harper. We didn’t anticipate a global pandemic.”
True. But MacPhail also didn’t expect that the Phillies would still have a total of zero playoff appearances after his fifth season on the job. He characterized that organizational failure as “a severe disappointment,” while somewhat unbelievably defending his front office’s five-year record of drafting and player-development by citing the combined wins above replacement of the Phillies' last four draft classes, a data point that was propped up considerably this year by one player (Alec Bohm).
Be that as it may, MacPhail sounded more interested in shaping the narrative of his tenure here than tackling the task of improving a roster that produced a 28-32 record this season while also cutting payroll to make up for revenue losses in 2020 and the uncertainty of 2021, a challenge that most other teams are facing, too.
For now, interim general manager Ned Rice -- Klentak’s top lieutenant -- will be making many of those decisions. Presumably, he will get input from above, although there’s little to indicate that MacPhail will micromanage Rice any more than he did Klentak, which is to say not much.
And that would be fine if the Phillies were still rebuilding. But Middleton spent $207.6 million, as calculated for luxury-tax purposes, last season on a roster that is headlined by Harper, Aaron Nola, and Wheeler, all of whom are squarely in their prime. There’s also the matter of re-signing free-agent catcher J.T. Realmuto, who was acquired 21 months ago for pitching phenom Sixto Sanchez.
This isn’t the time for the Phillies to take a gap year.
There’s no denying that COVID-19 complicates the hiring process. MacPhail suggested that some candidates might prefer not to relocate. Interviews would have to be conducted via Zoom. A new president of baseball operations would meet his staff remotely. None of it would be ideal.
But Dombrowski has interest in the job, according to two sources, as long as he could report directly to Middleton. Others surely feel the same. Besides, the virus didn’t stop the Sixers from hiring a head coach (Doc Rivers) and president of basketball operations (Daryl Morey). The Los Angeles Angels are interviewing general-manager candidates and intend to hire one of them.
If they can do it, surely the Phillies can. And now that Middleton has MacPhail’s blessing, they must. To hear MacPhail, Middleton would almost be doing him a favor.
“Let’s say there’s a very successful president of baseball ops somewhere and you can’t get him on a lateral move, but you could make him the president and he’d be interested in that, and he could come and essentially act as the president of baseball ops,” MacPhail said. “Whether the former team would go for it, that I don’t know, but that would be an avenue where you could land a big fish where I would happily step aside.”
It’s time for Middleton to make MacPhail happy.