The Phillies descend on Clearwater this week with a new front office, a whole slew of new players, and somewhat surprisingly, with a new manager. Of course, he is the same manager that finished out the string at the end of 2015, interim tag now removed and in charge for the first time, officially, as a Major League manager.
The surprise of Pete Mackanin becoming the Phillies' manager after being on Charlie Manuel's staff, leaving for a scouting job, then coming back to be on Ryne Sandberg's staff, along with the fact that Sandberg just simply didn't work out (those pro-Sandberg pieces from Lehigh Valley seem like a distant memory now) is one of the more interesting headlines you'll see for the Phillies heading into the season.
This isn't so much about who Mackanin is, how he got here, how he made connections with some of the Phillies' Spanish-speaking players last season by speaking the language himself, or how he's worked so gosh darned hard to finally put himself in this position. This is about what the Phillies' future could look like with him in charge.
Sandberg left at an awkward time in Phillies history. It seemed all but assured that Ruben Amaro, Jr. was about to be pushed aside, and he was, in favor of the new regime of Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak. Even without Klentak in place yet, MacPhail lifted the interim tag from Mackanin and put him in charge for 2016.
Mackanin isn't exactly walking into a favorable situation. He took over mid-season in a complete surprise. He had the interim tag lifted before a general manager was even hired, a rarity these days. He goes into the season under contract for 2016, with the Phillies holding the club option for 2017. Job security? No dice.
Mackanin as a one- or two-year "bridge" manager is entirely on the table. But if the Phillies play better baseball in 2016, do the "little things" the right way, and generally all seem to get along with each other, how could MacPhail and Klentak reasonably say, "Thanks Pete, it was a good run" and show him the door?
Mackanin was interviewed by the Red Sox following their disastrous 2011 "fried chicken in the clubhouse" collapse. Let that sink in for a second. A sabermetric-leaning organization led by owner John Henry and GM Ben Cherington was legitimately interested in Pete Mackanin, who was just finishing up a season in which the Phillies had made the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.
That's right. One of the better run organizations over the last decade was interested in Mackanin to right the ship after that sort of collapse. Sure, he didn't get the job there. But it says something about Mackanin.
The only thing that seems like a bigger waste of time than projecting the mammoth 2018 free agent class as of now would be projecting what managers are about to come available in 2018. Or, even later this calendar year.
Should the Phillies realistically even be thinking about that? Mackanin is one of the more advanced managers in terms of age heading into this year. He's 64. But Charlie Manuel was 69 when he was relieved of his duties in 2013, and he was still going strong. Mackanin's been waiting his entire life for this opportunity. You'd think he'd be interested in continuing.
As a young team, getting back to the fundamentals is important for the Phillies this year. From everything that he has said this off-season, Mackanin is just trying to tackle a few key topics in-depth instead of trying to be moderately decent at 100 different things. That seemed to be the mark of a Sandberg-led organization. Moderately decent or bad at many things, good at almost nothing. That was a problem.
It has always been hard to say with complete certainty just how much a double switch or pitching change can swing an in-game scenario. The Phillies had an off-field issue with Sandberg, though. It didn't seem like anyone was about to come to his defense after his departure. Managing the clubhouse and 25 egos was what Manuel succeeded at, and what Sandberg didn't seem to ever feel comfortable with.
It could just be all hot air, but Mackanin seems to be closer to Manuel than Sandberg, at least from what we've read and heard from the team. In terms of some of the on-field things, Mackanin does seem to have an idea. In an interview with Fangraphs last year, Mackanin talked about on-base percentage and how to properly construct a lineup, and how he wouldn't be afraid to use a certain reliever in a high-leverage situation, even if it meant using the closer in the eighth inning. Sure, he did use phrases like "base-clogger" and doesn't seem to believe too heavily in shifting, but what can you do?
Finding an incredible combination of off-field, clubhouse ego-manager and on-field, in-game tactics expert is, simply put, rare. Those managers just don't come around often, so you have to take what you can get sometimes. Did you really think that after winning 77, 74, 74, and 79 games in his first four years, that Terry Collins was going to win 90 games and lead the Mets to a World Series? Anything can happen.
Mackanin seems to offer a little bit of everything. It's easy enough to think about the next time the Phillies will be truly good again and what manager they'll have leading them. It seems almost easier to envision Mackanin being that guy.