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September 25, 2018

Al Morganti: Phillies' late-season collapse is overshadowing improvement in win column

Opinion Al Morganti
092518_Cesar-Hernandez_usat Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Cesar Hernandez is attacked by a swarm of wild sunflower seeds.

From the front office to the manager’s chair to the locker room — and right into the stands — the Philadelphia Phillies' 2018 campaign has been a regrettable mess that will mercifully come to a close this weekend when the Braves come to town to bring down the curtain on this season. 

It's fitting that manager Brian Snitker's Atlanta squad will provide the opposition for the final weekend – as they'll be the ones headed to the postseason after clinching against the Phillies just a few days ago.

Through most of the summer, the Phillies held the lead over their division rivals, but since the beginning of August, they collapsed while the young Braves fortified their game. The Braves got tougher as the games became more important, while the Phillies folded.

The Phillies folded and folded and folded.

From 15 games over .500 with discussions about the postseason — and talk about manager of year awards for first-year manager Gabe Kapler — all the way to a battle to finish at .500 and growing concern about the club’s future. The question that should be facing owner John Middleton is why, after what will amount to a wasted season, there doesn’t appear to be a ton of answers about what this team will look like NEXT season.

Under the Klentak-Kapler regime, players are shifted from position to position, and lineups change on a nightly basis. While it is true enough that the powerful Boston Red Sox use a similar change-the-lineup approach, the team is not developing players – it already has productive players under its first-year manager.

The Phillies are at a spot where they should be seeing players improve and get more comfortable in their status. That doesn’t seem to be the case with guys like Scott Kingery, who was awarded an historic rookie contract before ever playing in a game, but could not find a permanent place in the lineup all season.

It was not a great idea to give Kingery the green light to start the season with the Major League team, but from that point, it has been nothing but a flashing yellow light for Kingery. The Phillies have turned this first season for Kingery into an embarrassing game of hide-the-rookie.

The worst part of this whole mess is that the Phillies ran up the flag of analytics to start this season. The Klentak-Kapler regime was supposed to drag the Phillies out of the dark ages and into the new world of analytics. The problem is that the Phillies went overboard in their adherence to the gospel of analytics, and it was not an easy sell to a sophisticated fan base. 

Perhaps that's why, even when things were going well through most of the summer, the fans never truly warmed up to the team. Klentak’s over-the-top positivity has not resonated with baseball fans in Philadelphia. Citizens Bank Park has been only half full through the season, and looked downright empty in the final month of the season.

This is not a small issue. The fact that the Phillies could not draw people through the turnstiles during a month in which they were supposed to be in a divisional chase with the Braves is a dangerous sign for the future.

This is Philadelphia, the largest market in the United States with only one baseball team, and the fans were not intrigued by the Phillies. Mind you, this is a Phillies team with one of the best pitchers in baseball, Aaron Nola; a budding star in Rhys Hoskins; and two of the winter's bigger free agent singings in Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana.

As the owner, Middleton is going to have to consider how the public is assessing the team and its direction. Middleton might have been happy to put his faith in Klentak’s plan to revise the Phils' approach to the game, but the sound of the team swirling down the drain through September will be far louder than the sound of hope in May through July.

There will also be the matter of trying to lure free agents to Philadelphia. There is a whole lot of truth to the gospel that players will eventually land where they are handed the most money, but as an owner, why would you be happy with a situation where the free agents will cost you a premium to overcome the prospects of the team?

There are those who might believe that the end-of-season collapse should not totally overshadow the “improvements” made by the team this season, but this August and September have totally overwhelmed anything accomplished earlier in the season. 

The owner is now going to have to assess the damage, and decide if this is part of a growth chart, or if there is no way the team can improve under the path presented by Kapler, or by Klentak, or by both. So far, in his rare public statements, Middleton has supported the club’s direction, but the past several weeks might change his opinion. 

The manager and general manager should be called into the principal’s office. They’ve got a lot of explaining to do.

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