After years of rebuilding, the Phillies went into the 2018 season ready to contend. They had a promising (or at least, thought to be promising at the time) young core and supplemented it with some notable free agent signings. And they hired a new, analytically-driven manager to hopefully lead them into the next era of Phillies greatness.
As late as July, the plan seemed to be working, and the Phillies looked headed towards a playoff spot. And then things fell apart spectacularly, with the Phillies going 21-34 over the final two months of the season.
The big moves
- Hired manager Gabe Kapler.
- Signed pitcher Jake Arrieta as a free agent (Three years).
- Signed first baseman Carlos Santana as a free agent (Three years).
- Signed reliever Pat Neshek as a free agent (Two years).
- Signed reliever Tommy Hunter as a free agent (Two years).
- Traded shortstop Freddy Galvis for pitching prospect Enyel de los Santos.
- Signed minor league infielder Scott Kingery to a six-year extension.
How did they do?
After years of mostly sitting out the offseason, the Phillies certainly made an attempt to push the team towards contention. But this didn’t work at all.
For instance, at the end of 2017, rookie first baseman Rhys Hoskins burst onto the scene with a home run barrage. How did the team respond? By signing a free agent who played the same position. Carlos Santana wasn’t bad, but if you’re going to move your young stud hitter to a position he can’t play very well, it shouldn’t be for a guy whose best skill is taking a lot of walks.
Jake Arrieta seemed like a no-brainer signing at the time. The Phillies needed rotation help, and even if Arrieta was clearly declining from his Cy Young winning days, he was still considered a viable number two starter. We came to realize he wasn’t even that anymore. He was okay in 2018, less so the following year, and even less so the year after that.
After making the All-Star team in 2017, and then traded for a prospect, it felt like a small coup to bring Pat Neshek back in free agency. But injuries limited him to just 30 games in 2018. As for Tommy Hunter, the stats say he was somewhat effective, but he ranks highly on my list of least favorite Phillies. There were too many appearances where he was brought in to face lefties, and far too many moments when he stood on the mound, looking as if he was terrified to throw the next pitch. (Sometimes with good reason!)
This sundae of errors was topped by the cherry that is the Scott Kingery extension. He was the team’s top prospect at the time and had a blistering Spring Training, but due to service time concerns, it wasn’t clear if he would be on the Opening Day roster. The team solved that dilemma by singing him to a six-year extension before he had played a single game in the majors.
Phillies give Scott Kingery a six-year extension and an opening day roster spot https://t.co/MDDaoDlha5— The Good Phight (@TheGoodPhight) March 25, 2018
It has not proven to be a prescient move. Between the organization’s disjointed development process, the major league manager’s insistence on playing him out of position, and the player’s own faulty attempts to generate more power in his swing, Kingery has been one of the biggest busts in franchise history.
As for the choice in managers, there are some people who will still defend Gabe Kapler, even though he’s since failed with another organization. I understand that it was frustrating during the Ruben Amaro years to see the organization eschew advanced statistics. But Kapler was the embodiment of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction.
Like many rookie managers, he had a learning curve to deal with, and considering all the new ideas Kapler wanted to implement, that curve was steeper than with most. The result was a particularly unpleasing brand of baseball.
Final analysis and grade
The Phillies tried to improve themselves, but they didn’t succeed. I will defend the Arrieta signing, because the Phillies had a massive hole in their rotation, and he seemed to be the best option to fill it. And he really wasn’t as bad as you probably remember, especially in 2018.
I can’t offer much defense of the other moves. The Santana signing was nonsensical from the beginning, and the most memorable thing about his time in Philadelphia was when he smashed the clubhouse video game system.
ESPN says Carlos Santana came in to Phillies clubhouse and smashed a TV because some players were playing Fortnite during a game late in the season.— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) March 18, 2019
We now know some of the tighter “boundaries” that Gabe Kapler said he was going to enforce this year pic.twitter.com/I8cdzVm6be
They tried to improve the bullpen, but if there was one thing that Matt Klentak showed during his time as general manager, it was that he had no idea how to acquire a good relief pitcher. If Klentak signed or traded for a reliever, that player would either get hurt or almost immediately lose any semblance of effectiveness. (Sometimes both!) Sadly, this problem would get worse (far worse!) before it got better.