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The Phillies and John Middleton are paralyzed by fear

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They’re scared to move on and do what’s necessary.

Milwaukee Brewers v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

One day after a disappointing 26-34 season, a disappointing season heaped upon a slew of other disappointing seasons, the Los Angeles Angels fired Billy Eppler after five years in the general manager’s seat. The decision came quickly, as has the search for his replacement, with the team’s search expanding to 14 candidates. Former Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is reportedly among them.

In Philadelphia, the search for Matt Klentak’s replacement appears to be progressing at a snail’s pace. There have been no reported interviews scheduled or conducted, The Athletic’s Meghan Montemurro reported other executives are “in the dark” as to the Phillies’ plans, and last week, team president Andy MacPhail indicated they were in no rush to find Klentak’s successor.

“I think your first goal at this point is to make sure the next regime has the best chance it can to succeed. You have to think about that a little bit,” MacPhail said. “The last time we went through this process was five years ago, and we went through a relatively accelerated course of action because we had organization meetings at the end of October, we had GM meetings in the middle of November, we had winter meetings in December and we wanted to have somebody in place to go through that set of meetings. Those don’t exist this year.”

MacPhail, the Phillies president of baseball operations, typically holds a reporter availability at the end of every season, and when he does, there are usually one or two lines that get vilified by the media and fans alike. This year’s whopper of a take centered around the faulty notion that no one is ready to look for work during COVID-19.

“The other item that you’ve got to think about is who’s going to want to uproot in the middle of a pandemic?”

Obviously, this opinion is patently absurd, as the Angels are moving forward full-steam ahead in their search for a new GM, and the Philadelphia 76ers recently hired a new team president. All have occurred/are occurring, during the pandemic. Millions of Americans are out of work and it’s reasonable to assume many of them would be willing to “uproot” for the right gig. The Phillies, specifically MacPhail, appear to be using the pandemic, the cancellation of the owner’s and winter meetings and what they believe will be a late-developing free agent market, on their lagging search for a new GM.

Very few Phillies fans are accepting those excuses, especially when it’s clear what the true roadblock is.

Andy MacPhail.

MacPhail was correct when he stated it would be unfair to hire a new general manager right now. MacPhail is an admitted lame duck team president, one who abdicated any interest or knowledge of on-field matters during Klentak’s tenure as general manager. His very tone and demeanor suggests he doesn’t want to be involved in that part of the job anymore. It’s clear the team will have a new team president next season upon the end of MacPhail’s contract, and it’s hard to imagine a well qualified general manager agreeing to come to Philadelphia with a new team president on the way the following season. It’s also hard to envision a dynamic team president coming aboard in 2021 with a GM already in place.

The solution is simple for John Middleton. He needs to ask Andy MacPhail to step aside now and fully engage in the search for a powerful president of baseball operations. He needs to signal to the fanbase that he is not timid and understands this franchise is at a crossroads. The last five years have been a failure, and the team needs a new direction. An off-season with MacPhail and Ned Rice calling the shots, or one in which decisions are punted until late January, will hinder the front office’s ability to do what they promised — get the team back to the postseason.

The Phillies are rudderless. There is a leadership vacuum that MacPhail himself has called for Middleton to fill. “I’ve told him that because I’m not going to be here in a year, so it doesn’t matter who I pick,” MacPhail said. “They need to be invested in it.”

Last year, it took Middleton, MacPhail and Klentak 10 days to fire manager Gabe Kapler. Whether that was the right or wrong decision, the delay demonstrated an organizational tendency that has repeated itself with the search for a new GM and/or team president this off-season.

They are scared to do the wrong thing.

If the Phils go into the winter with the so-far invisible Ned Rice (is he going to hold a media availability at some point this year?), MacPhail and Middleton making decisions, with reduced payrolls to boot, fans will have every right to wonder if the team is punting the 2021 season, too. Bryce Harper and Joe Girardi will have every right to wonder what they’ve gotten themselves into.

“At this time almost every club, honestly, it’s more about reduction of players than it is adding,” MacPhail said. … The likelihood of a significant add, I think, in the short term or even mid term is not very high.”

If that holds true, even with fans allowed in the stands next year, Middleton and the Phillies could continue to see mostly blue seats. To his credit, MacPhail has said he is willing to go if Middleton wants him to, and has apparently made that clear for the last two years.

“If John thinks he can land a big fish by moving me aside and getting somebody to become the president, I would happily do that,” MacPhail said. “And this has gone on for two years. I’ve made a recommendation to John and I’ve had this conversation with him over a two-year period.”

Middleton cannot be paralyzed by fear. Boldness is the play, here. Move on from MacPhail. Bring aboard a great president of baseball ops who will hire his own general manager. Get more serious about the process. Don’t let COVID be an excuse. People will want this job.

The Phillies could be great, if the front office can get out of its own way.

On the latest episode of Hittin’ Season, Liz Roscher, Justin Klugh and I talked about the MacPhail news conference, Alec Bohm among the Rookie of the Year finalists, and more on free agency and who the Phillies could land this off-season.

You can [CLICK HERE TO LISTEN] or stream our conversation below to hear us talk about these topics and more:

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