No one is happy with the state of the Philadelphia baseball franchise.
A team with a payroll north of $200 million should never finish under .500, no matter how beset by injuries that team might be. The Phillies are simply mediocre. They’ve been mediocre for the last three years and, before that, they were terrible on purpose. They were terrible on purpose because the owner, John Middleton, team president, Andy MacPhail, and general manager, Matt Klentak, rightfully decided it was time to tear the team down and rebuild it from scratch.
When the Klentak era began five years ago, the Phils were bound and determined to “catch up” to the rest of the league. They were going to build an analytics department that helped them find talent where others couldn’t and allow them to develop their own players more efficiently. They were going to rebuild the farm system through smart trades and, when the time came, would spend the money necessary to build a champion.
The Phillies have spent money. What they haven’t done is win.
Fans were promised a lot of things, but here we are, with another sub-.500 Phillies team that appears to be spinning their tires. Even if they somehow sneak into the postseason after today’s game, are they really anything other than mediocre? Trust in the current regime is non-existent. In a season where eight teams from the National League will play meaningful October baseball, the Phillies will likely not be one of them. What’s more galling is that a handful of NL teams who were rebuilding along with the Phils — namely the Braves, Marlins and Padres — have lapped Klentak’s struggling ballclub and are further ahead in their return to contention than the Phillies.
What happened? Where did it all go wrong? Surely, Klentak and his baseball team suffered their share of bad luck over the last few years, but every team faces adversity. Much of what has held the Phillies back were self-inflicted wounds, some of which were the fault of the GM.
Below are the five most glaring mistakes that could ultimately result in the end of the Matt Klentak era in Philadelphia. You’ll note that I did not include their failure to sign J.T. Realmuto to a contract extension in the list below. It’s reasonable to assume the Phils’ decision to wait until last March to engage in long-term contract talks was to make sure Realmuto’s 2020 salary was kept lower due to salary arbitration. Had the Phils’ inked Realmuto to a deal before his arbitration number had been ruled on, it would have resulted in a higher payroll for 2020 and, most likely, forced the team over the luxury tax. If that is the case, then the onus falls on Middleton, who should have been willing to go over the tax to assure that the best catcher in baseball stayed in Philadelphia for the entirety of his prime. Unfortunately, their desire to stay under the tax delayed the Realmuto signing, and then COVID forced a transaction freeze that submarined any subsequent talks.
Hiring Gabe Kapler
It’s ironic the Phils are chasing Gabe Kapler’s San Francisco Giants in the NL playoff race, just one season after Middleton fired Kapler after two controversial seasons in Philly. Upon the completion of the ‘19 season, Klentak made it clear he felt Kapler, as well as pitching coach Chris Young, deserved another season. Middleton overruled his GM, not a great sign for Klentak’s long term future with the team, although a contract that takes him through the 2022 season mitigates that a bit.
Kapler never fit in here in Philadelphia, but the bigger issue may have been Young and hitting coach John Mallee, two position coaches who understood analytics, spin rate, launch angle, etc., but failed to recognize the natural abilities of the individual athletes and, in the case of Young specifically, didn’t know how to reach their players. How much did they mess up the development of Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin last year, or even for all his warts, Nick Pivetta? How badly did Mallee screw up Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery? Why did an offense with Bryce Harper, Jean Segura and Realmuto finish 8th in the NL in runs scored? How time did the Phillies waste with a Kapler regime that yielded nothing but head scratching decisions and little in terms of wins and losses?
Of course, the pro-Kapler brigade will note that he and his Giants could very well beat out the Phillies for the NL’s final playoff spot this year, which some would say vindicates Kapler as well as Klentak’s desire to keep him in Philadelphia. And if the September collapses from 2018-20 weren’t Kapler’s fault, and Klentak is the one constant, then perhaps that’s not exactly a feather in the current general manager’s cap, either.
The 2019 Starting Rotation
During the winter leading up to the 2019 season, the Phillies had Nola, an uneven Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta slated to take up the five spots in the starting rotation. It felt at the time as if the Phillies needed another dependable starter. Velasquez had not been impressive, Arrieta was up-and-down in 2018, and Eflin was unproven. Pivetta was seen as a potential breakout candidate by some (including by yours truly), and started the year as the team’s No. 2 starter, which didn’t seem like enough for a rotation that had playoff aspirations.
By the end of the season, their 4.64 ERA was 11th out of 15 NL teams, their 4.89 FIP was 2nd-worst, and a 1.61 HR/9 and 1.37 WHIP were both 3rd-worst in the National League. By the time the trade deadline rolled around, the Phils were dumpster-diving for Drew Smyly and Jason Vargas and tried dusting off Jerad Eickhoff for 10 starts in the first half as well. Pivetta finished with a 5.74 ERA, Velasquez’ was 4.96 and Arrieta’s was 4.64 before he missed the last two months of the season with bone spurs in his elbow.
Klentak (and some of us) simply misjudged how good Velasquez and Pivetta were going to be, as well as Arrieta’s durability and effectiveness, and he didn’t do enough at the trade deadline to correct those mistakes and found himself woefully short in starting pitching depth by the end of the season.
The 2020 Bullpen
The travails of one of the worst bullpens ever constructed has received plenty of ink over the last two months, so there’s no need for a deep dive here. Just know that their 7.17 ERA going into Saturday’s game was the 4th-worst bullpen ERA in MLB history since 1940. That’s pretty bad.
There’s no doubt Klentak suffered a lot of bad luck with his bullpen in 2019. He signed David Robertson, who had been one of the most durable and reliable late-inning relief pitchers for nearly a decade, to a reasonable two-year, $23 million deal. He appeared in seven games, gave up four runs in 6 2⁄3 innings of work with a 5.40 ERA before going on the shelf and getting Tommy John surgery, knocking him out for the rest of his two year deal. He also signed Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter to big money deals, only to see those two relievers miss major chunks of 2019 with injuries. Adam Morgan, Seranthony Dominguez and Victor Arano all went down. There’s no doubt a catastrophic wave of injuries killed their bullpen last season.
Klentak’s answer this off-season to all that wasted money last year was to sign... no one. He relied on Dominguez and Arano, two pitchers who had very uncertain injury situations, too bounce back, and for the volatile Hector Neris and a bunch of minor league veteran free agents to cobble together a bargain bullpen. Francisco Liriano, Drew Storen, Bud Norris, Deolis Guerra, Trevor Kelley, and Blake Parker were all given invitations to spring training, and only Parker made the team. The Phils took a flier on Reggie McLain, but that turned out to be another whiff. When Dominguez and Arano unsurprisingly were lost to the season with injuries back in March, the 2020 bullpen was born, and it was an ugly baby.
So Klentak turned to the trade market this summer to try and find answers. Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree, David Hale and David Phelps were all so bad it’s hard to believe it actually happened. Every trade blew up in Klentak’s face at the deadline and, while some of their struggles are clearly not his fault, his decision to punt the bullpen at the start of the season forced him into a position to try and add cheap reliever help at the end of August. Did Middleton’s desire not to go past the luxury tax play into Klentak’s off-season bullpen strategy? Perhaps, but given the fancy analytics system he and the rest of the front office put into place, one could have assumed they would have been able to find a hidden gem or two during the off-season.
If Phillies’ relievers had been just below average this season and not comically inept, it’s likely they would have clinched a spot in the postseason already. But they were inconceivably bad from start to finish, with both veterans and youngsters failing to produce. Which leads us to...
Failure to Develop Pitching
If you’re wondering why the Miami Marlins have vaulted past the Phillies in their rebuild just one year after losing 105 games, look no further than their stable of young pitching. Sixto Sanchez, acquired from Klentak in the Realmuto deal, was every bit as good as Phillies fans feared he’d be, but it’s not just losing a top stud like Sanchez. Pablo Lopez, Sandy Alcantera, and some smart veteran bullpen acquisitions, as well as an improved lineup with Starling Marte, simply made the Marlins a better team. Meanwhile, the one top pitching prospect in the Phils’ organization, Spencer Howard, did not impress in his first taste of big league action this year, and then was lost for the last few weeks with another shoulder injury.
Where are the young bullpen arms? Teams like Tampa, Los Angeles, Miami, and Houston just crank out one high velocity reliever with command after another, and yet the Phillies don’t seem to have anyone in their minor league system who can do that. Connor Brogdon has shown flashes in his last two appearances, which means he’ll almost certainly be a part of the Phils’ bullpen in 2021. JoJo Romero got off to a fast start but has a 7.84 ERA in 11 appearances this season. Ranger Suarez had a decent 2019, but missed virtually all of 2020 due to COVID-19. Does Neris come back? Adam Morgan? Will we ever see Dominguez again?
Seriously, what happened with Edgar Garcia? What became of Edubray Ramos? Why did all these guys either get hurt or fail? J.D. Hammer? Kyle Dohy? Yacksel Rios? Enyel de los Santos? Adonis Medina? The Phillies couldn’t develop one of them into a late-inning, high leverage relief pitcher?
And what about the rotation? Who is the No. 3 starter next year when Arrieta becomes a free agent? The team must go outside the organization because there is nothing left on the shelves in the farm system. There’s a reason Medina got called up to start a crucial game during a pennant race despite having never pitched above AA with a 5.88 ERA in 21 Reading starts last year. How does that happen after the team just finished a rebuilding process that was supposed to supply the organization with young talent upon which to grow?
Aaron Nola is the only pitcher the Phillies have developed over the last 10 years. Zach Eflin came to Philadelphia in a trade from the Dodgers by Ruben Amaro Jr., and although he’s pitched well down the stretch, no one is still really sure that he’s a mid-rotation starter moving forward. Klentak’s first big trade, the one that seemed to signal a free-wheeling, swashbuckling GM that we didn’t see again until the Realmuto deal, was to send Ken Giles to Houston for a collection of players that have largely disappointed. Vince Velasquez is obviously still around but should not be considered a major component of this team’s future. Mark Appel was a former No. 1 overall pick who was broken at the time of the trade and never got fixed. The rest of the players acquired were quickly sent packing, although Thomas Eshelman, one of the other pitching prospects acquired by Klentak, had a 3.89 ERA in 12 starts for the Baltimore Orioles this year.
The 2016 Draft was a disaster. Mickey Moniak made his big league debut this year out of sheer necessity, and didn’t look ready. The former No. 1 overall pick’s career high OPS was .749, done in rookie ball when he an 18-year-old back in ‘16. Since then, his next highest OPS was .741 last year in Reading where he hit .252/.303/.439. He’s still just 22 years old, but his ceiling is that of a fourth outfielder, not remotely what one would look for in a first overall pick. Yes, the 2016 Draft was not a great one, although the first round did yield Nick Senzel, Ian Anderson, Cal Quantrill, Kyle Lewis, Gavin Lux, Will Smith and Dakota Hudson, all big league players with a good deal of success so far. The Phillies decided to go below slot with Moniak in order to spend bigger on second round pick Kevin Gowdy, who has battled injuries and had Tommy John surgery that knocked him out of 2017 and ‘18. He threw 77 innings last year in the Sally League with a 4.68 ERA with 6.0 BB/9.
In 2017, Klentak went with Adam Haseley in the first round and, so far, he’s been a decent fourth outfielder, although again, you want more of a ceiling from a guy taken No. 8 overall. The Phils got Spencer Howard in the 2nd round and the team obviously has their fingers crossed he will turn out to be something special. Connor Seabold, their third-rounder, was sent to Boston along with Pivetta in the Hembree/Workman deal.
In ‘18, Klentak appeared to have hit on a really good player in Alec Bohm. Bohm is one of the few success stories of drafting and development during his tenure, but Bohm’s unicorn-like status as a young, homegrown potential star player makes their inability to find anyone else all the more glaring. The jury is still very much out on last year’s No. 1 pick, shortstop Bryson Stott, and this year’s No. 1, Nick Abel.
One could have expected Klentak’s analytically-driven front office to find good young players from opposing organizations and perhaps win a trade or two that way. One could have expected Klentak’s analytically-driven front office to have a better idea how to develop these young hitters and pitchers. But the Phillies have a farm system that is among the bottom-third in all of baseball, a ranking that is hard-to-believe considering the team has not had a winning season since 2011.
Because of their inability to draft and develop young players, specifically pitching, the team has continually had to purchase good players. If one is willing to have their payroll go well past the luxury tax, it’s possible to build a winner that way. But if one wants to keep their payroll below that number, what you get is what happened in 2020 — a top-heavy team with not enough young talent to supplement the team when injuries occur.
Certainly, Klentak has had some successes. Signing Zack Wheeler was a great move. Working with Middleton to get the Harper deal done was also a positive (although reports indicated he preferred Manny Machado, who had a better season than Harper this year). Trading for Realmuto was risky, and only worth it if he’s signed to an extension, but it was a bold move. Other moves, like dealing for Jean Segura and signing Andrew McCutchen and Arrieta, were fine at the time, even if they’ve produced mixed results. Others, like signing Scott Kingery to his big league deal before he ever played a game and bringing Carlos Santana aboard as a free agent before the 2018 season, were curious decisions that don’t look so good in retrospect.
Every GM is going to have some moves work out and some not. Bad luck is going to pop up in many transactions, but it’s fair for fans to wonder what this team’s future is. The Matt Klentak-led front office is a “replacement-level” front office right now, and there is nothing one can point to and say “Hey, the Phillies really do that well.”
In the case of the five items mentioned above, Klentak’s critical errors could ultimately lead to the end of his time as general manager.