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July 23, 2018

Cataldi: To win big, Phillies must be willing to risk big — and that means dealing prospects

John Middleton was sitting right across from me last year, offering some rare public insights into owning the Phillies, when I decided to take a calculated risk. I asked him on my WIP radio show how he felt about being called the next George Steinbrenner. His instant smile shocked me.

"I love the comparison," Middleton said. "I would love to have as many rings as George does."

Based on the frustrating developments of the past week, I would like to retract my question retroactively. This is no chance – zero – that the blustery late Yankee owner would have tolerated the timid, loser mentality of his underlings the way Middleton just did.

In case you missed it, the Phillies did not obtain the prize of this year’s trade-deadline sweepstakes, Manny Machado, because president Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak were unwilling to pay the price. And that price was a hard-throwing righthanded pitcher named Sixto Sanchez.

Turning 20 later this week, Sanchez is the prize of the Phillies farm system, a kid who can touch 100 miles per hour on the radar gun – and isn’t that all that matters in the analytics-obsessed Phillies organization these days?

Sanchez is still in A-ball, at least three years away from earning a promotion to Philadelphia. Do you want to know how many kids like Sanchez never make it all the way to the big leagues? I’ll end the suspense right now. Almost all of them. The fact that Sanchez is striking out less than one batter an inning in A ball, despite his stuff, is the first warning sign.

But not to MacPhail and Klentak, who repeatedly reinforce their passive approach in word and deed. Three years into their tenures, their credo is to wait, wait, wait,

Yeah, I know. The Phillies are exceeding all expectations this season, 12 games above .500 atop the NL East standings. No one wants to acknowledge that most of the main participants in this sudden rebirth were here before MacPhail and Klentak arrived because that would ruin the happy narrative. The truth is, MacPhail and Klentak are near the top of the league executives in prospect whiffs.

The biggest is Mickey Moniak, the No. 1 pick in the entire draft two years ago. Moniak is still stuck in A ball, batting .247 in the Florida State League, with an on-base percentage of .281. Seven of the young players from that draft are already ranked in the top 100 in baseball. Moniak is not one of them.

Now we’re supposed to believe that the brilliant baseball minds who botched the top pick 25 months ago have gotten it right this time with Sixto Sanchez? No, thank you. The best prospect MacPhail and Klentak were willing to offer in the Machado deal was another pitcher, Adonis Medina, who has a 4.48 earned run average pitching on the same staff as Sanchez in Clearwater.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers won Machado by offering one of the gems of their farm system, Yusniel Diaz, who was hitting .314 in AA ball, a step above Sanchez. Why was Los Angeles willing to outbid the Phillies? Could it be because they are trying to win today, the way Steinbrenner when he earned seven championship rings?

Last Friday night, while Machado was leading his new team to victory with two hits and two walks, Klentak was congratulating himself for making “a pretty strong run at it.” Yup, he said that. The kid GM wants credit for coming fairly close.

Can you imagine how Steinbrenner would have reacted if his longtime GM Brian Cashman expressed pride at an effort that failed?

Well, based on what happened last week, Matt Klentak is no Brian Cashman.

And, sad to say, John Middleton is definitely no George Steinbrenner.

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Is there anything more annoying in sports right now than this fixation athletes have on playing in Los Angeles? Hey, I like In-N- Out burgers as much as anybody, but let’s get serious here. L. A, is a lousy place for a sports hero to play.

First, it was LeBron James, who clearly has turned his attention away from winning championships and toward a second career in Hollywood. Despite his bogus flirtation with the Sixers last month, it was obvious after word leaked that he had two films in production that the new setting for his dream is 3,000 miles away from Philadelphia.

Then it was Manny Machado, who could barely contain his joy after the Dodgers outbid the Phillies in a trade last week. Even though he will be a free agent after this season, the new thinking now is that Machado will enjoy playing in Los Angeles so much, he won’t want to come back to the East Coast. 

“Obviously,” he said after his first game, “I love L.A.”

Finally, a strong argument could be made that Kawhi Leonard would be a Sixer today if he hadn’t informed everyone months ago that he planned to sign with the Lakers when he is a free agent after next season. Ultimately, he was traded last week to Toronto, which he immediately ruled out as a long-term destination.

RELATED: AL Morganti: Missing on Kawhi, Machado huge missteps for Philly

Do these sports heroes, with the expiration dates on the prime of their careers approaching, really know what they’re getting themselves into in La-La Land? Well, I’m here to help.

For starters, L.A. is a sports city gripped by apathy, and I’m not just talking about the reputation of Dodgers fans arriving in the third inning and leaving in the seventh. If you saw the way Eagles fans took over the West Coast stadiums of the Chargers and Rams last season, you already know how much more we care here. I was there. We owned that city.

Also, the lifestyle of a sports star in Los Angeles is far more physically demanding than here, both because of the thousands of extra travel miles required to play in the far more populated East and also because of the much earlier start times. Let’s see how much Manny Machado loves Hollywood when he’s playing an East-Coast game at 10 a.m., L.A. time.

And then there’s the ridiculous notion that these sports stars can trade in their popularity for movie success. When is the last time Michael Jordan starred in a film? Shaquille O’Neal? Even Ray Allen, who actually has a bit of acting ability? LeBron James will not be the next Denzel Washington. He just doesn’t know it yet.

Chase Utley is back in town starting tonight for his final bow in Philadelphia. A genuine sports hero here, Utley went home to L.A. three years ago and has played in relative anonymity since then. He will remain there as a full-time dad after this season.

Utley has it right. When you retire, then it’s time to consider the warm weather and juicy burgers of L.A. Before then, it’s far better to play in a great sports city like Philadelphia, where the people really care.

* * *

Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Jonah Bolden ... stop me when you see the name of an NBA star. Remember, Sixers coach and interim GM Brett Brown promised fans he would go “star-hunting” when he acquired an unprotected 2021 first-round pick in the draft last month.

At the time, we all thought Brown was talking about Kawhi Leonard or Paul George or – dare we say? – LeBron James. Other than the fact that they all happen to play basketball, Chandler, Muscala and Bolden have nothing in common with Leonard, George and James. They are role-players, names on the bottom of the stat sheet.

So what happened to Brown’s ambitious plan? Well, it might have fared better if the Sixers actually employed a general manager. After all, it has been two months now since Bryan Colangelo took his wife’s nutty Twitter accounts and logged off. What’s taking so long?

The most amusing development in this long search for a new GM came last week, when news leaked that Sixers owner Joshua Harris had tried to lure Daryl Morey, the executive of the year – and mentor to exiled hero Sam Hinkie – from Houston. Of course, Morey turned Harris down. It’s a safe bet that Hinkie has already told his old pal about his clueless ex-boss.

Don’t misunderstand. This is no endorsement of the clumsy work of Colangelo as GM, nor a nod to Hinkie’s losing tenure. Granted, the Sixers ended up with one genuine superstar, Joel Embiid, and another elite talent in Ben Simmons, but anyone who believes the Sixers have the foundation of a champion is delusional.

What the Sixers desperately need is a veteran star to lead them past more experienced franchises like Boston and Toronto, and they have done nothing so far to address that void. At this point, with Leonard joining the Raptors, the gap is wider than it was at the end of the season, with no immediate prospect for improvement.

Of course, Markelle Fultz could finally rediscover his lost jump shot, Simmons could develop some shooting range of his own and Embiid could find the elusive formula for good health. Maybe Chandler, Muscata and Bolden can provide some unexpected help, too.

And maybe I’ll win a Pulitzer Prize for this column.

I just wouldn’t bet on any of that happening, would you?

* * *

And finally . . .

Does Phillies president Andy MacPhail have a legal residence in the Delaware Valley? Has anyone ever seen him within the city limits of Philadelphia? I pose these questions because he seems to make himself available to the media once a year in Clearwater at spring training and then again on the road around mid-season. Last week, he spoke in Miami. The man has been running one of our most important franchises for three years now. It would be nice for us to see his face – and get the chance to ask a question or two – right here in Philadelphia. Or is that asking too much?

When he did speak, what Andy MacPhail said should cause some concern in the team’s board room, starting with owner John Middleton. MacPhail explained the Phillies’ bad attendance this season as a by-product of the success of the Eagles and Sixers. In other words, the Phils are powerless to prosper financially in Philadelphia if our other sports teams are strong? I wish Dallas Green were still here to tell Andy MacPhail what he thinks of that lame idea. I can only hope John Middleton does.

The most overpaid executive in American business is NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. He makes close to $40 million a year to make big decisions about America’s most popular sport, and yet he just keeps bumbling the biggest issues. His decision last week to suspend his idiotic new anthem policy while he negotiates an agreement with the players association was the latest example of his ineptitude. It took all this time for him to realize the players deserved some say in this national debate? That’s amazing.

Speaking of bad moves by a commissioner, top baseball boss Rob Manfred thought it was a good idea to criticize the game’s best player, Mike Trout, last week for not marketing himself aggressively enough. Unlike so many lesser stars, Trout plays hard all the time and is unfailingly respectful to fans and media. For this he got ripped at the All-Star Game. What MLB could use right now is a commissioner who is as good at his job as Mike Trout. 

Two days before the Eagles open training camp, Texas native Jason Peters is already in midseason form when it comes to harassing Cowboys fans. Last week, the big tackle said: “People tell me, “Y’all got lucky (by winning the Super Bowl.)’ I just say, ‘Too bad y’all haven’t been lucky in 20-something years.’” Actually, it is now 22 years since Dallas last won the Super Bowl. Thank you, Jason Peters.