Within the next few days, if not hours, the Phillies will decide Gabe Kapler's fate. If they fire the manager with one year left on his contract, it will be because he didn't lead a team with a $156 million payroll to the playoffs.
It’s a bottom-line business, after all, and the bottom line is this: After ownership spent nearly half a billion dollars on roster improvements in the offseason, the Phillies finished 81-81. There are several reasons for that, including a wicked spate of injuries that wiped out almost the entire bullpen. Still, a .500 record wasn’t good enough. There should be a reckoning. In all likelihood, there will be.
But before Kapler gets run out of town, as some within the game are speculating, let’s flash back to July 12. The Phillies were 47-43 and held a half-game lead for the National League’s second wild-card berth. But club president Andy MacPhail sat in the dugout before the first game back from the All-Star break and declared that the team wasn’t in position to make a bold addition before the trade deadline. General manager Matt Klentak seconded that notion roughly 10 days later.
OK, but what about the Phillies' mission, laid out by MacPhail himself, to make the playoffs only four years after losing 99 games and embarking on a full-scale rebuilding process?
"If we don't, we don't," said MacPhail, delivering a sound bite that has been played over and over.
To be fair, it was part of a larger answer about the Phillies’ reluctance to part with any of their top prospects — chiefly third baseman Alec Bohm, pitcher Spencer Howard, and outfielders Adam Haseley and Mickey Moniak — as part of a push to play in one wild-card game with the chance to face the powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers in a five-game divisional-round series. At best, though, MacPhail was inartful. At worst, he set a pitch-poor tone for the rest of the season.
When MacPhail made his infamous comment, the Phillies had a 25.9 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, according to Fangraphs. After Klentak picked up other teams’ garbage (relievers Mike Morin, Blake Parker, Nick Vincent and Jared Hughes, lefty Drew Smyly, bench pieces Logan Morrison and Jose Pirela on minor-league deals, and a trade with the New York Mets for lefty Jason Vargas), their playoff odds were 23 percent.
Not exactly needle-moving additions.
Regardless, majority partner John Middleton endorsed management's conservative trade-deadline plan. He co-signed the front office's decision to take the long view rather than mortgaging a potential piece of the future for a shot at one guaranteed postseason game.
Two months later, though, Kapler might lose his job over a 2019 playoff miss. Seems incongruous, no?
"I love working with this front office," Kapler said Sunday after Game 162, a 4-3 loss to the league-worst Miami Marlins that kept the Phillies from finishing with a winning record for the first time since 2011. "They give me all sorts of autonomy. I have felt supported by our ownership group. Our ownership group has done everything in their power to put a winning product on the field. I'm proud to be a Philadelphia Phillie and will do it as long as I'm able."
Good for Kapler for taking the high road. He continues to insist, too, that he hasn’t worried about his future. Not when there were games to be played, even meaningless ones to the wild-card chase.
But now that the season is finally over, Kapler figures to meet with Middleton, MacPhail, and Klentak and receive clarity on his situation. If he gets a pink slip, questions will need to be asked about why the expectations for the manager’s performance in 2019 were so much higher than the higher-ups.
Maybe the Phillies simply believe they can do better in the manager’s office. Joe Maddon became a free agent Sunday when the Chicago Cubs announced he won’t return. A native of Hazelton, Maddon has skippered eight teams to the postseason in the last 12 years and won a World Series in 2016. He also made $5 million this year and will seek similar compensation in his next job.
Buck Showalter sat out this season after nine years at the helm of the Orioles. If the 63-year-old wants to get back in the game, he worked with MacPhail and Klentak in Baltimore and would command respect from a 20-year managerial career.
Meanwhile, Kapler received a few notable endorsements as the players packed their bags Sunday.
"We feel like he's done a great job for us," J.T. Realmuto said. "He gets the guys to play hard. We all love playing for him. He's been our manager all year and nobody's had anything to say about it. We've obviously had a rough last couple of weeks and fell out of contention. For me, Gabe's our manager. He's a guy that this clubhouse really respects."
Said Bryce Harper: “It hasn’t been his fault. He’s had some tough decisions he had to make, bullpen-wise, lineup-wise. I love our staff. I enjoy playing for our staff. They’ve made me better each day and I appreciate that.”
Most fans don’t agree. Kapler is often criticized, even ridiculed, for his data-driven decisions and Tony Robbins-style orations in the media. In the ninth inning Sunday, a sign was unfurled behind the third-base dugout that read, “Analytics say fire Kapler.”
Any day now, the fans might get their wish.