Today is the 63rd day of 2018-19 MLB free agency, and it was also the 63rd day in which the Phillies did not announce a deal with either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. There was a time when signing both of them felt like a real possibility. Now, it feels far more likely they will sign neither.
If they were to do so, the Phillies would instantly become Manny Machado’s or Bryce Harper’s Team; defined by this single move. The 2019 baseball season is going to arrive as inevitably as 2019 will tonight, and the Phillies will have to play whether they sign a superstar or not. So, with one or without one, who is this team? To answer that, let’s start with who were they before.
We are not getting a day to celebrate the champions of our beloved 2007-11 seasons here in Philadelphia this year. We are getting three of them. The holy infield trinity of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard made the Phillies better by being a foundation that made the team stronger in (and up) the middle and made baseball in Philadelphia something that people actually wanted to look at.
The credit for all of this should be spread out among more than three people, but when you think about those times, it is poetically, narratively, and symmetrically satisfying to put three quarters of the Phillies infield at the center of it. That the Phillies got them all in the same place, at the same time, is one of baseball’s greatest modern miracles.
Jimmy Rollins was the heart and soul.— Kevin Negandhi (@KNegandhiESPN) July 14, 2018
Chase Utley was the big moment threat.
Ryan Howard was the muscle.
Phillies fans were lucky to watch them turn 2 in the prime of their careers.
Rollins, Utley, and Howard are still that foundation—even though now they’re out in the world, throwing birthday parties, writing children’s books, or working for the Dodgers—having etched into the barely legible annals of Philadelphia sports history one of the few chapters about glory and not about dejection, racism, or spitting. They are the reason a generation of fans in this city first learned what a championship-winning team looks like and the ripple effects it can have on a metropolitan area. And from that foundation, the Phillies are trying to build this next group.
What remains when players depart is their legacy and their impact, and until someone once again reaches the levels of success those three attained, people will complain that these Phillies don’t scrap like Chase, strut like Jimmy, or crush like Ryan. But players, even the beloved ones, are only fleeting members of a team. The more lasting fixtures are the philosophies at the team’s heart, driving not just who they have acquired previously, but who will come next and how management will motivate them. This is, yes, quite boring. It’s also unarguably true.
For a city that focuses so much on people’s “style” of play, it makes no sense that such a singular definition of a “Philly guy” still exists. Phillies fans watched three all-stars (and two NL MVPs) play here for most of a decade, win them a World Series and take them to the playoffs, all with different styles. Utley did it silently, throwing his body at the problem. Rollins did it with swagger, happy to give you a quote. Howard did it with a smile, despite taking most of the blame. It’s not that there’s not a right way to play ball in Philadelphia. It’s that there’s a lot of right ways, and the Phillies were fortunate enough to find three of them.
So there’s got to be more.
Opening the 2018 season, Gabe Kapler was asked for the thesis statement of his team address to the Phillies.
“One of the questions I’ve been asking a lot of our players is what does it mean to play boldly? What does it mean to deliver a pitch boldly? What does it mean to take a swing in the batter’s box boldly? What does it mean to communicate boldly?”
Kapler went on to talk about conviction, courage and fearlessness, attributes he wants to see in his club. He wants to build an environment where there is no fear so his players can be comfortable and bold.
Gabe Kapler wants boldness at the heart of the Phillies; a daring notion to which few would object. But the Phillies are not a team that has exhibited much boldness in the months since Kapler’s speech.
Right now, it’s easy to not see much of it in the Phillies’ winter. Are you BOLD ENOUGH to offer J.A. Happ a third year? Are you BOLD ENOUGH to give Patrick Corbin a deal to steal him from the Nationals? Are you BOLD ENOUGH to let the sound of a dump truck backing up slowly drown out the conversation in a meeting with Manny Machado and for him to rush to the window and see, in the bed of a dump truck in reverse, the money in physical form that the Phillies are willing to pay him to play here? The Phillies have not been. Being bold may not be an organizational philosophy; just one for the locker room. But even then, the Phillies weren’t a particularly fearless, self-assured, or gutsy squad at the end of 2018.
The other side, however, is the boldness to do nothing, I guess? Perhaps the broader plan is to remain patient, scouring the landscape, waiting for the opportunity to make not just the right move, but the right move at the right time. Matt Klentak may have spent the holiday outside a free agent’s house or another team’s war room, his only company a thermos full of coffee and a mostly ignored sandwich, his binoculars leaving circles around his eyes. It is naive to grade a process before it is complete, so there exists the possibility that even right now, as these words materialize, the Phillies are being bold without us realizing it at all. It’s the style of the front office we’ve come to know the last few years: Say nothing, even while speaking.
There’s Matt Klentak; quiet, invisible, defensive. In October 2017, he let manager Pete Mackanin go without knowing who would replace him—just that the 66-year-old baseball lifer needed to be replaced. “Our roster right now is littered with young players who look to have a very, very bright future,” Klentak told the press. “It’s time to look forward. That’s the message today.”
We can now look back on the period to which Klentak had been looking forward, and we see a team that outperformed expectations, then took those raised hopes and dashed them on the sidewalk along Pattison Avenue. Klentak wasn’t apologizing for the 8-20 September that had helped kill the season, or a gassed pitching staff, a defense that existed mostly in theory, a manager always assuring us that everything was fine, or a punchless offense at all. He was just looking at the numbers—and he liked them.
“This team just rolled out there in a conventional style would not have made the playoffs,” Klentak said. “In fact, it would have been worse than this year’s team. The fact that we’ve outperformed our run differential as much as we have I think speaks to the fact that we probably did pretty well in the area of putting our players in the best positions to succeed. As the roster evolves and we have more ‘regular players,’ I think you’ll see that less and less. But the roster this year kind of dictated that that’s the way we behave, and we will adjust that behavior moving forward as necessary.”
“We are the most inconsistent team I have ever been associated with,” President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail said in his post season press conference. “I have to be open-minded, and I have to watch what’s going on... You collect as much information as you possibly can. If you know anything about Gabe, he makes adjustments... He’s going to have to make some adjustments moving forward and stay open-minded.”
Verbally, that’s the most trackable philosophy these Phillies have uttered: Being open to all ideas. You’ve seen it at work in a couple of instances—After some poorly received optimism from Kapler in the season’s back half, MacPhail mentioned that relentless positivity while a team implodes is a way to “lose credibility with the fans.” And in turn, Kapler has stated that he will be ready to unload some public accountability when the situation calls for it in 2019.
Being open is a nice idea, but it’s also just a keen way of stating, “I don’t want to be wrong, but know, eventually, that I will be.” That’s what’s been behind the Phillies’ budding reputation as the epicenter of analytics—that with the right equation, maybe they can be wrong a little less of the time. But the Phillies would have you believe that this has been exploded a bit by outside perception.
While the Phillies investing in analytics has been viewed as Kapler’s doing, as MacPhail put it, the team has gone from from “no analytics” to “the industry standard of analytics” in about three years. You’ll find analytics in other branches of the organization, exemplified in the recent hiring of Driveline Baseball’s Jason Ochart to be the minor league hitting coordinator, who is no stranger to the phrase “data-driven.” His beliefs—and, I suspect, his pro-bat flipping stance—are about to be an influence on the future of the Phillies offense.
When you back up enough, the Phillies don’t sound much different than anybody else, really. They’re folding their process into the game’s modern version, and have yet to translate it into a marketable enough entity to put butts in the seats, even during a playoff race. Nothing they’re doing is dramatically different from any other modern ball club, except, for a while, they were doing it a little slower.
The Phillies had a lot of new faces in 2018, and they’ll have a few more in 2019. As far as “who the Phillies are,” we can look at a depth chart and see that Jean Segura is at shortstop and Andrew McCutchen will play a corner outfield role. Rhys Hoskins will move back to first base, Aaron Nola will presumably be on the mound opening day, but what the players can do—some of them with their first full year of big league ball under their belts, others having become valued assets elsewhere before being brought in—is determined by how they function as one, with Kapler as their leader and the front office driving the philosophy behind their assembly.
So, who are the Phillies? A team of sophomore starters and trade candidates, led by a verbose, chiseled manager, a reclusive GM, a steadfast team president, and an owner seeking low-level celebrity, united by their proclaimed commitment to open-mindedness while keeping the clubhouse doors shut. They will use analytics as a tool to drive decision making, like any modern baseball team, and they will do so with unparalleled cash reserves and without, for now, a bankable star.
It makes you wonder, then, what distinguishes the Phillies beyond the red pinstripes. And maybe it’s my early start on New Year’s talking, but the real difference—the best difference—may have been shouting at Manny Machado as he stepped out of his SUV and onto the sidewalk outside Citizens Bank Park earlier this month.