When the Phillies hired Matt Klentak following the 2015 season, everyone was prepared for the pain.
Fans knew a grueling rebuild was coming. They knew the glory years of 2007-11 were behind them, that the franchise needed to introduce “analytics” into their organization, fill the farm system with top-tier talent that would provide the building blocks for the next era of Phillies baseball and essentially reconstruct every facet of the organization from the ground up.
Under team president Andy MacPhail, the Phils brought Klentak aboard to spearhead that effort. Klentak was a former Ivy League baseball player who was the assistant GM for the Los Angeles Angels for four seasons and after arriving in Philadelphia, did what everyone expected he would do.
Hey, that was fine. Everyone knew that was a necessary cost of getting better.
However, the rebuild is over. The Phillies now have a roster full of high priced players with a payroll over $200 million and, after sweeping a doubleheader against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday night, sit just one game over .500, 26-25, barely holding on to the 7th playoff spot in the National League.
After five seasons with Klentak and MacPhail at the helm together, the Phillies don’t appear to have a direction. They don’t appear to be using analytics to their advantage. The farm system is barren. Trade after trade has fallen flat. They have not uncovered any hidden gems from other organizations, few of their own minor league prospects have panned out (Alec Bohm, Rhys Hoskins and Aaron Nola the chief exceptions), and the decision to hire Gabe Kapler as manager was a disastrous mistake.
This year, Matt Klentak has assembled one of the worst bullpens in Major League history, and that is not hyperbole. Their 7.29 ERA coming into Friday was 4th-worst in MLB going back to 1940 and the worst in Phillies history.
There are big decisions coming this off-season. They need to replace Jake Arrieta in the starting rotation and potentially add another starter, completely rebuild the bullpen, re-sign or find a replacement for Didi Gregorius and, most importantly, ink J.T. Realmuto to a free agent contract.
Middleton must decide if Klentak and MacPhail are the right ones to make those decisions.
At a certain point, an executive has to answer for his organization’s performance and, simply put, the Phillies haven’t been good enough. Klentak has made two whopping errors in judgment, the hiring of Gabe Kapler in 2018 and the construction of the 2020 bullpen. Kapler’s hiring amounted to two wasted years, with a field staff that seemed incapable of getting their players to play up to their potential, and the front office must take the blame for a relief corps that could single-handedly extend a nine-year postseason drought. And it’s not as if no one saw this coming, as it was clear in February this collection of relievers was not good enough.
It’s inconceivable that this team is just one game over .500 and could miss out on an expanded postseason in which more than half of all NL teams will reach October.
When Klentak was hired after the 2015 season, the Phillies were expected to leap into 21st century baseball. They were going to build an analytics department that allowed them to catch up to the rest of the league and aid them in player development, drafting, trades and free agency.
As fans, we assumed the Phillies would find value at the margins. Instead, the team’s farm system is among the weakest in baseball (ranked 26th out of 30 teams by Baseball America in August), which has meant the Phils needed to spend big money to bring in veteran players from outside the organization in order to survive. None of the young pitchers outside of Aaron Nola were turned into dependable starters, the bullpen is devoid of young, homegrown, impact talent, and while Alec Bohm looks like a star, the jury is still very much out on players like Adam Haseley, Roman Quinn, Mickey Moniak and other young position players.
The Ken Giles trade was a bust. The J.T. Realmuto deal netted the Phils the best catcher in franchise history, but it also cost them Sixto Sanchez, a future ace who, if he stays healthy, will be competing against them in the division for at least the next six years. Making matters worse, they might lose Realmuto to free agency after a contractual staring contest unexpectedly got paused when COVID-19 interrupted the start of the baseball season.
The Phillies are simply not set up for sustained success, and that falls at the feet of the team’s two architects: Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak. Does John Middleton truly want to give Klentak and MacPhail another off-season to figure things out? Does he really trust them? If so, what have they done to garner that trust? How do things markedly improve with them calling the shots?
The Atlanta Braves began their rebuild at the same time as the Phillies and, not only have they flown by the Phils, they’ve lapped them three times around the track. Even more dispiriting, it appears the Miami Marlins, who lost more than 100 games last season, have passed the Phillies in the rebuild race, too. The Washington Nationals won the World Series last year and, this year’s big step backwards notwithstanding, will likely be better moving forward, and the Mets have always been good for a laugh but have been to a World Series more recently than the Phillies (2015) are about to be owned by a mega billionaire who wants to steal Realmuto away from them.
Make no mistake, Middleton will be the one making the Realmuto signing, if there is one. But what about the rest of the organization? Should Klentak and MacPhail get yet another chance to put a winning roster together? Are the results there to warrant yet another off-season with them at master control?
I never imagined any general manager would be fired in 2020. The pandemic threw everything into chaos and it didn’t seem fair that any GM would lose their job as a result. And it’s fair to argue J.T. Realmuto may have already been signed to an extension if the transaction freeze hadn’t been put into place back in March. But this about much more than just Realmuto. This organization is not where they promised the fans they would be. The Phillies continue to dance with .500, much as they had the previous two seasons as well, and it’s grown tiresome.
Look, I hate calling for people to be removed from their duties, and I’ve resisted the urge to call for people to be fired for years. That decision will fall to Phillies ownership, and it’s clear an audit must be done of the last five years. Middleton must take stock of where this team is and, with clear eyes, make a decision on the two men who have run the team since 2016 before any other decisions are made regarding players who will be and will not be a part of this team in 2021 and beyond.
Simply put, the Phillies should be better than this, and Middleton has to figure out if the two men calling the shots these last five years are responsible for the team’s underperformance.
On this week’s episode of Hittin’ Season, I spoke with former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro about the state of the 2020 bullpen, Alec Bohm, and Amaro’s thoughts on Driveline and player development inside the organization. Here’s a brief snippet of our chat:
Here’s the full episode: