On Sunday, August 5, the Phillies had the second-best record in the National League, 63-48, were 1 1⁄2 games up on the Atlanta Braves in the NL East, and Gabe Kapler was a leading contender for NL Manager of the Year.
Seven weeks later, the Phillies are now a .500 baseball team, 78-78, the result of a monumental collapse that has seen them go 15-30 over that stretch, the worst record in the National League over the last 45 games. With three more games against a very good Rockies team and three more against the Braves, it’s more likely than not the team will finish the season under .500.
And some fans are calling for the head of the manager.
Did the Phils deserve their 63-48 record when they had it? Probably not. They had a great starting rotation that unsurprisingly fell off over the last two months, the offense got little to no production out of their two most important hitters, Rhys Hoskins and Odubel Herrera, over that stretch, and the young bullpen’s inconsistencies resulted in a number of late-game collapses.
Those are the main reasons this team sits 10 games out of first place and playing meaningless baseball during the last week of what was supposed to be an exciting conclusion to the season.
So now we’re all looking to the off-season, a winter in which the team is expected to offer mega-contracts to one or both of Manny Machado and/or Bryce Harper. The team is ready to spend. It’s all going to happen.
Or is it?
Just spoke with @WIPMorningShow on subject of whether #Phillies manager Gabe Kapler could be fired. One thing didn’t mention. I’ve been told by baseball people that top free agents may not want to come to Phila w Kapler as Mgr. It comes down to more than money. @SportsRadioWIP— Howard Eskin (@howardeskin) September 25, 2018
Folks, I wish I could dismiss this take out of hand, but I cannot.
Eskin hasn’t always been right when it comes to the Phillies, but he does seem to have connections to members of the ownership group and the front office. He was out front a couple years ago when he reported previous team president David Montgomery was being edged out as majority owner of the team by Jon Middleton. and that turned out to be true.
But there are also some holes in Eskin’s tweet. First, we don’t know what baseball people Eskin spoke to or how closely connected they are to Machado, Harper, or the other “top” free agents. Second, he says they “may” not want to come here with Kapler as manager. Of course, that “may” not could quickly become “you bet,” if the money is good enough.
Eskin also speculated during his appearance on WIP that the jobs of Gabe Kapler nor Matt Klentak are completely safe.
“I don’t believe they are safe based on the fact that I think John Middleton has some patience, who loved (Matt) Klentak who then made the decision for Kapler. But how could they be safe when this team just fell apart?” Eskin said on Tuesday’s 94WIP Morning Show. ”In many cities, at least the manager would be gone and I guess the general manager would have to resurrect things. I don’t see why they should be safe.
”Here’s the worse thing you can say in sports: Has the team quit on their manager? The way they’re playing—they’re not good enough. We understand that, but it’s embarrassing.”
Is it an insane notion that Kapler and/or Klentak could be relieved of their duties, especially in light of reports in the first week of the season by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal that speculated Kapler could be on the “hot seat” after his rough first week? Is it totally ludicrous?
It is not. It is speculation, but it is not baseless speculation.
After spending more than a month in first place, the Phillies have been the worst team in baseball over the last QUARTER of the season. That’s right, for the last 25% of the 2018 regular season, they have a worse record than the San Diego Padres, Miami Marlins, San Francisco Giants, New York Mets, everybody. While that’s not a huge sample size, it’s also not a terribly small one, either, when looking at the season as a whole.
And while much of that is on the players (perhaps most), some blame certainly has to fall on manager Gabe Kapler and general manager Matt Klentak for the team being mostly non-competitive over these last seven weeks.
But there are more reasons not to fire Kapler and Klentak than there are to do so.
Look, the Phillies have been a frustrating group to watch and cover. Frankly, they’ve been exhausting. We’re all burned out. Between the sometimes-questionable lineup decisions, the ever-frequent pitching changes, an offense that is predicated on waiting around for something to happen, a lack of athleticism that has made the team a station-to-station group, the horrific defense displayed by virtually everyone on the roster and the insistence on playing players at multiple positions despite their seeming inability to do so, we’re all a bit OD’d on Phillies controversy.
But it seems like an overreaction to pull the plug on Kapler after just one season in which he had a roster with lots of holes and inconsistent performers. Of course, were some of those inconsistencies brought on by the way Kapler and Klentak utilized the talent they had? That’s a fair question. After all, many of these same players made up a top-10 unit in virtually every offensive category in the second half last year. But regardless of the answer, shouldn’t a manager get more than just one year to prove himself?
The only way a dismissal of Kapler makes sense at this point is if the Phillies have received word from Machado and Harper’s agents that mirror Eskin’s report — that free agents don’t want to play for this manager. Is Kapler’s reputation around the league really that bad? I’m skeptical.
I’m not sure how a prospective free agent could know they don’t want to play for Kapler after he’s had just one season at the helm and when that player has never played for him before. But if Machado and Harper’s agents have essentially told the Phils they don’t want to play for Kapler, then a difficult decision lies in front of owner John Middleton.
The most important thing this off-season is to get Machado or Harper. Or both. A failure to do so will feel like a failure of the off-season.
Oh sure, if the Phils don’t land either guy, they could certainly improve themselves by landing a few other free agents, like a combination of Patrick Corbin, A.J. Pollock and D.J. LeMahieu. But the goal here is to land one of the young superstars, and if those young superstars have indicated they don’t want to play for Kapler, then that could be the end-game for one or both.
Don’t forget, Klentak went out on a limb to sign Kapler, who was an unorthodox choice at the time, as noted by Phillies team president Andy MacPhail a year ago.
“The GM only gets so many managers,” Phillies president Andy MacPhail said Tuesday in a wide-ranging state-of-the-team news conference at Citizens Bank Park. “If you make this move, you’re going to increase the scrutiny on yourself. ‘Are you prepared for that?’ He understood. He’s unafraid.”
So if Kapler is fired, it’s hard to imagine Klentak not also getting fired, and it’s hard to see that happening right now. After all, Klentak has had to endure three off-seasons of a rebuild and is just now getting his chance to put together a winner. Will Middleton and MacPhail fire him at this sensitive time?
It’s also important to note that free agents typically like to go into an organization that has front office stability. Removing Kapler after just one year and Klentak after three would run counter to that. Major League teams that have the most success are typically the most stable ones as well.
Look, every aspect of the Phils’ collapse of 2018 must be investigated. Did Kapler lose the locker room? Has he lost the players? Did they quit on him? Did Klentak ruin the team’s mojo by trading for a bunch of veterans who haven’t helped the team win (veterans we all praised him for getting, by the way)? Are the players simply not good enough? Is the team relying too heavily on analytics (yes) and not enough on feel?
But the most important question is, will free agents refuse to play for the Phillies if Gabe Kapler is the manager, as Howard Eskin has said?
That is simply a question only John Middleton, Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak can answer.