CLEARWATER, Fla. — Ninety-nine days without being able to sign a player, make a trade, or even speak to agents and rival general managers about signing players or making trades left Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski plenty of time to tie up other loose ends.
Like, say, picking up manager Joe Girardi’s option for 2023?
“No,” Dombrowski said Sunday, as Phillies players reported for spring training. “Nothing has changed.”
Read into that what you will. Go ahead and assume that the chair in Girardi’s office here or back at Citizens Bank Park is bum-scorching hot. Or maybe Dombrowski just doesn’t see the urgency in extending the contract of a manager who, accomplished as he was for 10 years at the New York Yankees’ helm, lost more games than he won in two playoff-free seasons with the Phillies.
Either way, Girardi has managed as a lame duck before. He won a World Series with the Yankees in 2009 and was forced to manage in the last year of his contract in 2010. In 2017, he took New York to within one game of the World Series — and still got fired.
Rest assured, then, he isn’t sweating his job security now, up in the air as it may seem.
“I don’t ever look at it that way,” Girardi said on the eve of the Phillies’ first full-squad workout. “It doesn’t make my job tougher. I’m going to do the same job no matter what. Just like players, managers have to perform. It’s a production-based business, so you have to perform.”
The Phillies haven’t performed to expectations since they hired Girardi to replace Gabe Kapler after the 2019 season. It’s fair to question Girardi’s impatience with young players, such as outfielders Adam Haseley and Mickey Moniak. He has a reputation as a master of bullpen management, but Phillies relievers have combined for a 5.20 ERA since 2000, third-worst in the majors.
Girardi, 57, blamed himself last year. After the Phillies were eliminated from playoff contention in the 159th game of the season in Atlanta, stretching their postseason drought to 10 years, he said he “failed getting us to where I wanted to get to.” The disappointment lingered, according to Girardi, at least through October as he watched the playoffs on television.
But it’s increasingly clear that the Phillies’ problems go deeper than the manager’s office. Girardi didn’t get duller after a wildly successful decade in New York, just as Kapler didn’t morph into Casey Stengel en route to leading the San Francisco Giants to 107 wins last year.
Despite carrying one of the highest payrolls in baseball, the Phillies’ roster is top-heavy. They lack organizational depth, especially within the pitching ranks, to survive a six-month season. The bullpen has been a nightmare for years. Other than the two months in 2019 before Andrew McCutchen blew out his knee, they haven’t had a standout leadoff hitter since Jimmy Rollins. And the farm system has been largely arid.
Perhaps it was under those circumstances that Dombrowski offered a kinder assessment of Girardi’s job performance last year.
“He did fine. He did a good job for us,” Dombrowski said. “I think he’s a good leader of our club. He handles situations well, manages well. He’s well-respected, has good communication with the players, has good communication with me. I think Joe did a good job for us.”
But when the Phillies hired Girardi, they believed he would be a difference-maker. When they brought in Dombrowski to head baseball operations after the 2020 season, owner John Middleton described him and Girardi as “two of the best people in place to set us on the path back to where we want to be, and that is the postseason and contending for world championships.”
So, the mandate is clear. And Girardi knows what more than likely will happen if the National League’s longest active stretch without a playoff appearance reaches an 11th year. It’s a hazard of the job.
Surely, though, it makes the job easier when there’s more certainty. Chicago Cubs manager David Ross got a three-year contract extension last week. The Colorado Rockies, who haven’t had a winning season since 2018, gave manager Bud Black a one-year extension last month. Dave Roberts is reportedly close to receiving an extension from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
That’s one less thing hanging over them than Girardi.
“I played for four different teams, I managed three different teams, I worked with two or three different [television networks]. You learn that this is just kind of your life,” Girardi said. “You don’t know where you’re going to be for a long time. But the one thing that I know that’s going to be a constant is my wife, Kim, and the kids. That’s, I think, how you deal with it. You’re going to move around. You’re going to live in different places. You just get used to it.”
By all accounts, Dombrowski and Girardi have a solid relationship. But Dombrowski also didn’t hire Girardi. He wasn’t even aware until a few months ago about the existence of the option for 2023. If that could be interpreted as a sign that Dombrowski hadn’t given much thought to making a change, a decision to not pick up the option before the season could be viewed in the opposite way.
Regardless, Girardi doesn’t see the sense in reading into it.
“I’ve never been extended in a season before, so it’s something that I am used to,” he said. “You play it out.”
It begins Monday. Across baseball, there may not be a manager for whom the stakes are higher.