This offseason was probably the most important one this team has seen in some time. Heading into the 2018 season, they were looked at as a team that would improve, but still not have enough to push for a playoff spot. By October, they were coming off an unexpectedly competitive season where they undoubtedly overachieved for much of that season until the calendar turned to September. Then not on the wheels came off, but the driver, windows and quite possibly a vital engine part came off as well. There was nothing anyone could do to stop the bleeding, no matter how hard anyone tried.
Gabe Kapler tried. He tried everything he could think of. He still could not get the job done.
It’s no secret that he is not the most popular man among the fanbase. He has his staunch supporters and his vocal detractors. There almost doesn’t seem to be a middle ground when it come to an opinion on Kapler - either you love him or you don’t. You can really be just “meh”. But I have news for you folks.
He just became the most important person in that clubhouse.
We all know his history. The initial press conference where a “media member” couldn’t let go of blog posts in the past, and who continues to harp on them at a near constant certainty, giving fans a running joke that truly shows no signs of letting up. The reports emanating from spring training last year about candle light meetings and the lack of curfews. Then, as we got into the season, the seeming lack of preparedness for pitching changes and the hyper-aggressive moves that were made.
What we cannot deny is the fact that as the season progressed, Kapler was somehow squeezing out wins this team had no business having. Even though some of the wins were ones that enhanced the profits of antacid companies, people were loving life with Kapler.
I love Gabe Kapler and I love this Phillies team. Phirst place is fun.— Brooklyn (@Brookie425) July 25, 2018
I think I love Gabe Kapler— Brady (@BradyEast2) July 26, 2018
And then it all went downhill.
We don’t need to rehash what happened, but what we do know is that on September 1, 2018, the Phillies were only 3 games back of the division and 1.5 of a wild card berth.
This team was still very much in contention at a point when football was beginning to take over. Sure it was all smoke and mirrors, but you cannot deny where they were. As they searched high and low for runs, they were trotting out Asdrubel Cabrera, Jose Bautista and Carlos Santana on a regular basis. This team did not have the talent to remain where they were.
This year, though, that excuse is no longer an option.
Matt Klentak seems to have assembled a roster that is virtually “Kapler-proof”. I say this with absolute affection for the way he tried to create lineups last year that could scratch and claw their way to runs that their best of intentions just could not create. When Scott Kingery, he of the <checks notes> zero OPS for the months of August and September was still being counted on to be a productive player, when Bautista was statistically your second best hitting outfielder, you try anything you can. With the lineup constructed as it looks like it potentially could be, it means less tinkering and meddling from Kapler. He just needs to find the right mixture that will score runs and leave them be. There isn’t really anyone in projected lineup who you would want to be substituted for anyone else on the roster. There is no more reason for tinkering.
Looking at the pitching staff, the situation is ripe for a manager like Kapler who believes in the matchups. Properly utilizing Aaron Nola is key, of course, as well as making sure Jake Arrieta is happy, but the final three of the rotation - Pivetta, Velasquez and Eflin - all will require Kapler to be aware of when to pull them at the proper time. He has a full stable of relievers that significantly shorten games for him if any of the rotation members needs to be replaced. Where Kapler will have to show improvement is when to properly use these relievers.
We all know about his slavish devotion to the data and how he lets it influence his thinking, but there is little doubt this devotion cost the team several wins last year. Using Seranthony Dominguez on multiple nights when it was clear he was tired, not using a lefty-on-lefty matchup because the numbers said this right-hander was better used, these are the things that bothered fans then and linger in our minds headed into this new season. He has to show that he is able to pivot from the numbers if the situation calls for him to do so. He learned that during the year with his starters, letting Nola go longer when he was dealing on multiple occasions, but we need to see it from relievers. With the National League East shaping up to be incredibly tight, every win will be huge. Wins will be at a premium.
What is nice to see is that Kapler is embracing both the need to be different this year than last and the pressure that has been anointed him. Earlier in the winter, he acknowledged the need to perhaps be a little less positive and a little more critical. This was one of the things that bothered fans the most, the relentless positivity. I’m not saying they are right, as positivity is a good thing, but there are also times when constructive criticism can go a long way toward helping a player improve. Of course, we’re also talking about the public version of Kapler and aren’t privy to what happens behind closed doors. People just want to see a little fire this year, especially during a rough patch.
“Look, what we always want is to be judged by wins and losses on the field,” Kapler continued. “We know that now the expectations of Philadelphia Phillies, the city of Philadelphia, are especially high. That’s what we’ve always wanted. We want a high challenging bar and we want the expectations that we’re going to step up and meet that bar. We have the players with that kind of mentality. We have the staff and the front office and the ownership group with that kind of mentality, so we would want it no other way. And we’ve kind of been really thinking about this moment for quite some time. That the pressure would be on, that the bar would be high, and that we would be prepared to step up and meet that bar.”
Again, it’s all well and good that he is ready for it. What he has to do now is win. Nothing else will be good enough. The team has passed the point of development and is ready to win now. Kapler better ready to help this team do it.