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Phillies owner John Middleton steps up to the plate

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By taking center stage during the introduction of Andy MacPhail as new team president, the richest man in Pennsylvania showed he's ready to be the ownership face of the Phillies.

NBC 10

When Ruly Carpenter sold the Philadelphia Phillies to an ownership group headed by Bill Giles back in 1981, the men and women who owned the franchise became a largely nameless, faceless group who worked behind the scenes. Giles was the front man, but the decision makers, and more importantly, the people who held the purse strings, were largely unseen.

And for the most part since then, that setup has remained the same, with Giles succeeded by David Montgomery as team president and face of the ownership group. However, as Montgomery was forced out last year, a new dynamic emerged with reports that one of the owners, John Middleton, was trying to become a majority owner of the team, desirous of taking on a larger and more prominent role.

Fast forward to Monday's press conference announcing Andy MacPhail as the new president of the Phillies. While the presser was designed to introduce MacPhail to the media and the public, it was really more of an introduction for the first man on the dais to speak, Mr. Middleton.

While he denied reports that he was trying to stake out majority control of the Phils, his appearance, outspokenness and earnestness at this press conference could only lead one to conclude that he is the man who holds most sway among the two ownership families remaining, the Middletons and Bucks.

And that may be the most important part of what happened at Citizens Bank Park on Monday.

Folks, there's a lot to unpack here. Here are the takeaways from the landscape-altering press conference by Middleton, MacPhail and current president Pat Gillick, three men tasked with leading the team through the long slog back to contention.

THE MANDATE: WIN

Middleton made it clear that returning the team to its winning ways was of paramount importance.

"Our primary, in fact, paramount concern was the team's on field performance and the need to improve and get us back to the winning ways we enjoyed from 2007 to 2011. In fact, it was not just our primary objective, it was our first, second and third priority."

MacPhail will shadow Gillick over the final three months of the season and will not officially take over as president until the season is over. However, MacPhail noted that it could take some time before the rebuild is officially over, noting a few teams that went through a long rebuilding process but are now winning ballclubs.

"I think any team that really kind of devotes itself to a rebuild gets rewarded in the end. Teams like Kanas City, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, if you stick with it, ultimately you're going to be rewarded."

However, he also is putting no timetable on the rebuild, noting teams can suddenly become playoff contenders in a flash if things go right.

"The improvement in your team's performance can come up overnight. Just a few key acquisitions, young players contribute, you have a good year injury wise and stay relatively healthy, so I think today's game kind of defies timetables."

In other words, like a summer squall, the next great Phillies team could pop up AT ANY MOMENT!

SABERMETRICS:

Believe it, guys, the Phillies are all-in on sabermetrics. It seemed clear that the owners wanted their next hire to be familiar with the use of advanced stats, but also understood they needed to be used in combination with traditional analysis. In fact, it was exactly three minutes into the press conference when Middleton said...

"[MacPhail] has done an excellent job of keeping himself current with the changing trends in baseball, as sabermetrics has become such an important tool. Thus, Andy is a rare combination of both old school experience, and new age thinking."

"New age thinking because in the five years he served as president of baseball operations for the Orioles, Andy greatly expanded their use of sabermetrics and statistical analysis in player evaluations."

MacPhail noted how much importance Middleton and the Bucks wanted their hire to put on using sabermetrics in player evaluation as well.

"I can assure you that sabermetrics is something of intense interest to ownership. I was quizzed pretty carefully about that."

"When it comes to that sort of thing I believe you look at everything. Absolutely everything. Why would you exclude any information? You're gonna try to do every piece of homework you can to push the odds of a deal being successful in your favor. You're going to look at every stat, every formula. I am hardly the guy who is the sabermetric genius, so you go hire people that are, and you have the young kids come in and explain to you what it is, why it's important and then you make the judgment just how much weight you're going to put on it."

"But I think it's essential that you marry that with the best human intelligence that you possibly can."

I mean, could this have been said any more perfectly? And could that have been any more of an indictment against the team's current general manager, Ruben Amaro?

Any worries people may have had about MacPhail being too stuck in the past because of his links to former president David Montgomery (whose name did not come up until the last five minutes of the press conference) and Gillick should have had those fears put to rest, if at least for a day.

Oh, and Middleton even went one step further, announcing the team is building their own custom sabermetrics system, which should be ready to go by September.

Dreams are coming true, everybody.

ON PAYROLL:

One of the biggest changes that could be coming is a world with no payroll limits, at least if you believe what Middleton had to say.

"We're not going to hand him a budget and say, 'You get to spend "X" dollars next year, we're going to go to him and say, 'You tell us what you can do for this team in order to win."


However, Middleton noted that now is not the time for big splashes.

"There's a time and a cycle in a team's development to do that. And we saw that in '07 and '08, and there's a reason to do it then. There's not a good reason to do it now. But we're not going to give him a number and say you have to create a team that fits in that number. We want him to create the best team for the Phillies for it to have success in the long run. And then we're out to fund that."

Whoa. Like virtually every other answer said by Middleton and MacPhail, this was a balanced, nuanced, sensible response that leads you to believe solid decision-makers are finally in control of this team.

While Middleton has a reputation of wanting to be a free spender, he's also apparently seen what can happen when you spend money foolishly. He didn't become wealthy by throwing money away, and it's also encouraging to hear there will be nothing restricting MacPhail and his future GM (not Amaro, of course) from putting the best team they can get on the field.

RUBEN AMARO:

Not one of the three men mentioned Amaro by name during the presser, which one would think was certainly no accident. MacPhail was asked about Amaro's future.

"I think it's way, way premature for me to, and I never liked the word, evaluate. I like the word "learn." I've got three months to learn what I need to learn, and I think it's way premature to talk about personnel decisions."

That's not exactly a rousing vote of confidence for Ruben. However, Gillick said for the rest of the season, Amaro is calling the shots.

"Ruben is going to be the GM through the end of the season. He's going to make any of the deals we make. He still has that authority. That's his job, to change personnel. That's not going to change."

This is worrisome, considering Amaro is probably not going to be the general manager after this year. Having a lame duck GM make what could be franchise changing trades is a bit mind boggling. And it's also not clear how respected he is or effective he can be, given his lame duck status.

However, Gillick will give almost certainly give the final OK on any deal Amaro makes, with MacPhail adding his two cents for good measure. Frankly, this doesn't worry me too much.

MIDDLETON AND A MAJORITY STAKE:

He flatly shot down reports he was trying to get a majority stake in the team. Kinda.

"I would tell you those reports are erroneous. I'm very happy where I am now. Listen, things change. Twenty-plus years ago when I joined the partnership, there were five to six owners, we're now down to two. So obviously things can change in the future just as they've changed in the past, but I'm not pushing for change."

But Middleton also noted that he and the Bucks will be more involved in making sure the decision makers are held accountable.

"Pete, Jim and I have been much more involved in the issues and at an earlier stage than we were five years ago, and that's not going to change. We're going to be there, asking questions at an earlier stage. You don't want us making baseball decisions, trust me. But I think we need to be sure we're asking as many hard questions of the people who are involved in that process and getting information and sifting information and making the decisions. We need to be comfortable they're crossing all their "t's" and dotting all their "i's."

In other words, a more hands-on ownership group, with Middleton leading the way.

ANALYSIS:

At the end of the day, this felt like a franchise that was in the midst of turning a huge cruise ship around 180 degrees as fast as it can. To hear top Phillies executives talk about sabermetrics, and to hear ownership talk about a payroll with no ceiling, and to hear the brass say one sensible thing after another, helps everyone who has suffered through this monstrous season have some hope.

Establishing an analytics database isn't going to solve every problem. Having an unlimited payroll isn't going to be the panacea. And just getting rid of Ruben Amaro as general manager isn't going to suddenly make the Phils a 90-win team again.

But if the Phillies are able to do all the things they say they want to do, and if MacPhail can duplicate the kind of success he's had with other organizations, and if the Phils can remain disciplined, hire the right people, invest in the draft and minor league system, and make smart trades and signings at the Major League level, their financial resources are such that the rebuild doesn't have to last as long as the ones in Tampa, Kansas City or Minnesota.

Middleton, MacPhail and Gillick said all the right things on Monday. And it's clear that, while the press conference's initial intent was to feature MacPhail as the new leader of the franchise, it is the elevation and prominence of Middleton that could ultimately determine how long it's going to take for the Phillies to once again be one of the National League's best franchises.

The words were good. Now, it's time for the actions to match those words.