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Phillies’ John Middleton and Andy MacPhail vs. Steve Cohen and the Mets is not a fair fight | David Murphy

One week after Andy MacPhail said the pandemic has lessened the Phillies urgency to hire a new general manager, Steve Cohen announced that the Mets were open for business.

Phillies President Andy MacPhail looks at his phone while the Phillies played the New York Mets on Sunday, August 16, 2020 in Philadelphia.
Phillies President Andy MacPhail looks at his phone while the Phillies played the New York Mets on Sunday, August 16, 2020 in Philadelphia.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

As Andy MacPhail spoke to reporters on a video conference call two Fridays ago, I kept thinking about one of the more underrated movies of the early-2000s. In “Frequency,” Dennis Quaid plays a New York City firefighter and ham radio hobbyist who, due to some supernatural force, discovers a frequency on which he is able to talk with his son 30 years in the future. Throughout the movie, Quaid is in 1969, his son is in 1999, and the radio is the link between the two worlds.

While this might sound like an implausible scenario, it is the only one I can come up with that would explain the version of reality MacPhail relayed to reporters during a half-hour question-and-answer session regarding his baseball team. Quantum theory suggests that, somewhere in the multiverse, there is a world in which the Phillies president’s understanding of his organization’s current circumstances is reflective of a man with a keen grasp of the competitive realities of the professional sports industry. Perhaps MacPhail didn’t just sound like he was living in the past. Maybe he was actually there.

Whatever the case, the Phillies have a problem, because the world in which they need to compete is one in which they are competing against a bunch of executives who got to where they are by doing things differently from the way executives of MacPhail’s era did them. The most pertinent and concerning example will undoubtedly be whatever front office ends up replacing the one that was just summarily dismissed by the Mets.

Phillies principal owner John Middleton’s net worth might look impressive to work-a-day suckers like you or me. To Steve Cohen, though, $3 billion is little more than a stock-market fluctuation. Baseball’s newest majority owner didn’t even wait for the Herman Miller office chairs to arrive to announce that the Mets were open for business. Unfortunately for the Phillies, Cohen seems to understand the first step toward a functional organization is hiring the right person to organize it.

Granted, we still don’t know that Cohen will end up hiring the right person. What we do know is that he has already made more of an effort than the guy whose lunch money he has positioned himself to spend the next decade stealing. Less than three years after an offseason in which they agreed to pay a pair of aging relief pitchers $34 million over four seasons, Middleton and MacPhail have apparently decided that it isn’t worth the trouble to find someone new to consult on such decisions.

“Your first goal is to make sure the next regime has the best chance it can to succeed,” MacPhail said when asked about the likelihood of replacing recently demoted general manager Matt Klentak. “Who’s going to want to uproot in the middle of a pandemic?”

It was the sort of comment that made you seriously consider the possibility that MacPhail was broadcasting from another planet. Earlier that week, the Sixers had made national news by hiring one of the most respected -- and expensive -- personnel men in the NBA. In Major League Baseball, the Los Angeles Angels were in the midst of conducting interviews for their vacant general manager position. Cohen had yet to clean house in New York, but did the Phillies really think he wouldn’t begin his tenure with the Mets by looking for the best personnel architect that money could buy?

Say what you will about hedge-fund guys, but they do not alter their 10-year strategic plans because of the logistical challenges of relocating for work during these trying times. They understand that market downturns are a prime time for the rich to get richer and that the marginal utility of a dollar spent in the executive suite far exceeds any amount of innings that Pat Neshek can give you. Who’s more valuable: Tommy Hunter, or the guy who decides not to sign him?

In fairness to Klentak and Phillies interim GM Ned Rice, their transaction-level decisions over the last five years have been far from disastrous. It isn’t their fault that Charlie Morton tore a hammy and ended up breaking out in Houston. Carlos Santana was one year removed from an MVP-caliber season when they signed him to a three-year deal. Andrew McCutchen might not be Michael Brantley, but he’s been a solid addition. In the amateur talent market, it is still too early to judge what, exactly, the last five years have reaped. Alec Bohm looks like a potential star, as does Spencer Howard. The minor leagues operate on a six-year cycle. We simply do not know what kind of foundation the Phillies have been building.

But therein lies the absurdity of their current strategy of fundamental improvement through cosmetic change. If Klentak and Rice have failed to fix the rotting foundation that they inherited from the previous front office, it defies reason to think that it can be achieved by simply switching around their titles. Like the Sixers, the Phillies are in need of a singular leader who has a competent plan to turn them into an organization that consistently identifies and develops talent.

Unlike the Sixers, nothing MacPhail has said or done suggests that his boss will eventually realize what a top-shelf executive looks like. One of the more remarkable parts of his press conference two weeks ago was his retelling of the process that led to Klentak’s hiring.

“We went through a relatively accelerated course of action,” MacPhail said, “because we had organization meetings at the end of October, we had GM meetings in the middle of November, we had winter meetings in December. We wanted to have somebody in place to go through that set of meetings.”

This year, due to the pandemic, those meetings aren’t happening. Which, in MacPhail’s world, means there is no reason to hurry.

The logic is both startling and revealing. The Phillies just fired a GM whom they hired, in part, because they wanted him to participate in meetings. Instead of reevaluating that criteria, they are using it to conclude that there is no pressing need for change. In doing so, they are ceding ground to the Mets before their new owner even gets started.