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The Manuel Firing: Three Thoughts

A few belated musings on the dismissal of the greatest manager in franchise history.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

With all the talk earlier this season about the pending departure of one or more among the Final Five Phillies left from the team that won the 2008 World Series, few raised the possibility that a sixth uniformed member of that team, manager Charlie Manuel, might leave town the soonest of any of them. But while Ruben Amaro couldn't or wouldn't trade any of Cole Hamels, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins as the trade deadline came and went and the team fell from plausible contention into a baseball K-hole where they might reside awhile, it was Charlie that walked the plank.

Returning from a weekend with friends in Montreal--a city that knows from baseball pain--I'm a little late to the party here, and as always my TGP compatriots have superbly told the story. But I did want to add three thoughts before this episode fades into the ongoing bruise of a nightmare season.

1) I found the news shocking--in that after nearly nine years and an unprecedented run of success, it's just weird to think of the Phillies managed by anyone other than ol' Chuck--but not entirely surprising. In fact, the circumstances around Manuel's firing last week are uncannily similar to those under which he left the 2002 Indians in midseason: facing something between a reload and a rebuild, a clearly ambivalent GM, Mark Shapiro, wouldn't commit to retaining him in the dugout beyond the season, but wanted to keep him through the end of the year and long-term in some role. Charlie didn't wish to go along ("I didn't want to be in limbo"), and the result was something like a mutual breakup. The Tribe even replaced him on an interim basis with the third base coach; let's hope Ryne Sandberg has a longer and more distinguished managerial run than did Joel Skinner.

2) Much as I love Charlie and always will, and would have done everything possible to keep him in place through the end of this season, I don't think it's unreasonable to assert that he's not the right man for this team at this time. Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Bill Livingston (who also noted the similarities to Manuel's 2002 break-up with the Tribe) made this point obliquely, as have others: Manuel does extremely well with a veteran team with an established leadership core and mostly defined roles. His strengths as a manager are in the handling of egos and setting a tone in the clubhouse, not in-game tactical maneuvering. Given much better health and a little more talent on hand, a better tactician--Buck Showalter, or the late Billy Martin--might have been able to keep the 2013 Phillies on the periphery of the playoff race. Might have. But that guy would have been absolutely wrong for the 2005-11 Phillies, and that wasn't the deal Manuel signed up for this season; Amaro thought he was giving Charlie a roster that could compete. As others have noted, this is the real problem: this team consistently fails to effectively evaluate non-elite players.

Nor is Charlie the guy to oversee the mass auditions that obviously will be the main order of business for the last 40 or so games of 2013. It's not that he can't develop young talent or is afraid to give young players a shot; quite the contrary, as Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, J.A. Happ, Vance Worley, Kyle Kendrick, Ryan Madson and many others could tell you. (And even in the last couple weeks, he seemed happy to give Darin Ruf and Cody Asche their shots.) But he was mostly able to work in the Werths and Worleys because there was a lot of certainty elsewhere on the roster; for most of his tenure, probably 16-18 spots on the 25 man were clearly accounted for, meaning that Manuel had time to figure out the last 7-9. This year, maybe six to eight spots were solidly filled. For a 69 year old man with a championship pedigree, only two years removed from a 102 win team, that had to be a jarring adjustment.

3) I'm really trying to guard against confirmation bias in evaluating any move the Phillies make now; just because so many recent decisions have gone poorly doesn't mean that every single one is indefensibly dumb. Even so, I worry that the bad optics and clumsy handling here will burn the team for awhile to come. If Twitter is any gauge (admittedly a big if), the perception is that a clueless organization put their greatest leader in an impossible situation, then jettisoned him in a transparent attempt to distract disgruntled fans. This could impair efforts to recruit players and, for that matter, coaching staff, including a manager if Sandberg isn't retained.

At the least, the days of players affirmatively choosing Philadelphia, and even taking less money to suit up for the Phils, are now over. Part of it, of course, is that the team is less attractive because they're no longer a championship favorite. But another part is that a man who's universally respected and widely loved within the game is no longer in place, and likely will have less than totally warm things to say to anyone who asks about it.