On Friday, the Miami Marlins made history when they hired Kim Ng as their new general manager, the first woman to occupy that role in Major League history. It was a historic signing and, not for nothing, a terrific hire, as Ng has three World Series rings to her credit as a front office executive. In fact, she was one of the candidates the Phils spoke to during the process that ultimately led to Matt Klentak landing the job in 2015.
Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Angels whittled their GM candidates list from 20 down to one, hiring Perry Minasian from the Atlanta Braves to take over as their new general manager. Minasian spent the past three seasons with Atlanta and the last two as Vice President of baseball operations. By all accounts, it was a solid hire.
The Phillies, meanwhile, have reportedly done... nothing, and they don’t appear ready to do something anytime soon.
“I haven’t even heard a single indication that they’ve started the process.” Stark on the Phillies front office vacancy. https://t.co/D66kjcy9tH— Destiny Lugardo (@destiny_lugardo) November 10, 2020
From Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic said on Thursday, “The Phillies, currently being run by team president Andy MacPhail and interim GM Ned Rice, are not known to be engaged in an active search.” And ESPN’s Buster Olney called the Phillies a team “adrift.”
Column: While the Mets are poised to take a big step forward, one of their division rivals is adrift. https://t.co/OLg8JtWuAU— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) November 12, 2020
Needless to say, fans are upset, and rightfully so.
The Marlins hired an incredibly competent and qualified general manager and happened to make history at the same time— Franzke & LA (@FranzkeLA) November 13, 2020
The Phillies are having a site wide sale up to 65% off in the official online team store
So what are the Phillies doing? Do they have a plan? In trying to figure out what is going on inside the minds of front office decision makers, I’ve narrowed things down to five potential theories.
The Theo Epstein Theory
As Michael Cerami of Bleacher Report wrote this week, Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein is under contract for one more season, after which, he’s expected to move on to another opportunity. MacPhail’s contract also runs for one more season at which point the Phillies will have to make a change there.
Olney noted the Epstein connection in his piece as well.
“But the simple fact is that as of today, the Phillies’ front office is operating without the long-term vision of an Andrew Friedman, an Erik Neander, a Theo Epstein, a Brian Cashman. Rice might be the guy holding the steering wheel at the moment, but the Phillies are working without a map for player development, for scouting, and for how they might improve for 2021.
There are a lot of ways that Middleton could go in picking the next leader of his front office, whether it’s someone experienced like former GMs Brian Sabean or Jim Hendry, or someone younger from the analytics generation. Maybe Middleton will wait for Epstein’s deal to expire (and some in the industry expect that Epstein will move on from the Cubs before the start of the ’21 season).”
In this scenario, the Phils are simply waiting for the guy who delivered two long-suffering franchises long-awaited titles, the Red Sox and Cubs, to become available and make a run at him following the 2021 season.
If this is true, then it doesn’t make sense for the Phillies to pursue a general manager this off-season. The same holds true for any potential team president they might be interested in that is under contract through next season. A GM that enters the picture now would have to understand a new team president would most likely want to put their own person in that spot. What qualified general manager is going to enter into a situation with such an uncertain future?
Perhaps the reason Middleton has not pushed MacPhail out now is because he knows he wants Epstein, but can’t have him until both of their contracts expire next October. If so, landing Epstein would be a coup for Middleton and the Phillies, and maybe there’s a chance Chicago releases Epstein from his contract a year early, but it’s a huge gamble that essentially freezes everything for a full calendar year. Not only that, if this was the plan, why fire Klentak now? Why not give him one more year with MacPhail?
The Money Trouble Theory
Middleton noted in his Zoom conference call last month that no one knows what the financial picture is going to look like next year. Will fans be allowed in the stands? If so, how many? How many games will they play? Not only that, the team obviously lost tens of millions of dollars in revenue this season if not more (some estimates have put the number at around $150 million), but without being able to see the finances of big league teams, it’s impossible to know an exact number and how that number compares to gains made in previous seasons.
Nevertheless, it’s clear the Phils are cutting costs. They recently fired a number of long-time scouts and team employees and have signaled they plan to scale back their payroll this off-season, too. So what would it say to those employees if Middleton fired his general manager, fired his team president and hired two additional people at big salaries to do their jobs, essentially paying four people to fill two positions? MacPhail is signed through next year, so moving him out and paying someone else to do his job while also paying his salary may be a bridge too far for Middleton as he pays Matt Klentak GM money over the next two years while he’s not a GM.
If the Phillies truly are hard up for cash, they may be waiting just so they don’t have to shell out the cash in a double jeopardy scenario.
The Gap Year Theory
After high school, some young people take a year off from school. Some travel the world, some work to save up money, some just hang out on their parents’ couch and play Super Mario Kart 12 hours a day. It’s called a “gap year,” a year in which a young person “finds themselves” before entering college.
It’s been suggested the Phils are approaching the financial uncertainty of the 2021 season by looking at this off-season as a gap year. They’ve spent big in the previous three off-seasons and had little to show for it in terms of wins and losses, and with a new collective bargaining agreement needed after the season, no one knows what the industry’s landscape is going to look like.
The easiest thing to do would be to put on the ‘ol bath robe, hand the keys over to MacPhail and Ned Rice and let them make the smaller moves around the periphery while Middleton handles any J.T. Realmuto contract talks. Baseball plannin’ is hard work, after all, and sometimes, you just need a gap year to reset and find yourself, you know?
The Pandemic Theory
“...Who’s going to want to uproot in the middle of a pandemic?”
I mean, besides Kim Ng and Perry Minasian?
The “We’ve Got Plenty Of Time” Theory
There are no formal in-person owners meetings or winter meetings due to COVID and it’s likely to be a later-developing free agent market, at least at the top, than last season. Remember in 2018-19 when Manny Machado and Bryce Harper hung on the vine until February and early March? MacPhail seems to think the same could happen again this winter/spring.
So what’s the rush on finding a new GM? The rest of baseball is just going to be hanging out, watching their stories and making Tik Toks, right? Of course not. Teams are already adding smaller free agents. Trades are certainly being discussed. Just because guys like Realmuto, Trevor Bauer and George Springer aren’t going to sign right now doesn’t mean important improvements can’t be made now. This is when teams are putting together their strategies for the next few months and discuss different ways to make the team better. The long-term vision of the franchise is in constant need of massaging and, right now, there is no one at the helm to do that.
If the Phils front office thinks they can skate by for a few months and not be at a disadvantage, they’ve misread history.
The bottom line is no one can figure out what the Phillies are doing. In the last two years they’ve watched the Marlins sail past them and reach the postseason for the first time since 2003 and hire the first woman general manager in baseball history, the Atlanta Braves win three straight division titles, the Mets come under new ownership in Steve Cohen, a billionaire fan committed to making New York good again, and the Nationals, who won a World Series last year and still has a bunch of talent on their roster. And yet it is the Phils who are acting with a disturbing lack of urgency.
Check out the latest episode of Hittin’ Season, Episode 432, where I discussed this and a slew of other top Phillies stories.