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June 24, 2019

Kevin Cooney: Kapler, Klentak must do better — or this Phillies season will be over soon

The Phils are plummeting down the standings and, despite a revamped roster, they appear headed for another mid-year collapse

Gabe Kapler’s jaw clenched tightly late on this Sunday afternoon. His eyes shot lasers in the direction of the people who asked questions about his faltering baseball team. The defense of his players — the ones who are laying the groundwork for his permanent trip back to California — was noble in its tenor.

“We win as a team and we lose as a team,” Kapler said. “We don't single anybody out.”

Somewhere in parts unknown, Matt Klentak was away from the firing line. The general manager, the one who built this top-heavy roster, is shielded from criticism right now because his manager and coaching staff are the dartboards of the moment. But the instant that he makes a move on Kapler, the target officially goes on the backs of Klentak and Andy MacPhail.

Welcome to the hell that is conclusion-of-baseball summer in Philadelphia. There may be 85 games left, but it sure as hell feels like it’s over already.

That’s what happens when you get swept by a Triple-A team disguised as the Miami Marlins, capped off with a 6-4 clunker which saw the Phils get outhit by a 16-4 margin.

The Phils are now 6.5 games back of an Atlanta Braves team they lead by 3.5 just over three weeks ago. They are just two in front of a Nationals team they led by nine games in that same timespan.

“There’s no sense of sugarcoating it or trying to figure out exactly what it is or why it is, we just haven’t played well,” outfielder Jay Bruce said. “We’re much better than we’ve played. I’ve only been here 20 days or whatever it is, but I’m not blind. We’re a good team, a very good team. Obviously, that’s one of the biggest reasons I decided to come over here, because of the talent here and the opportunity that was in front of me, and I don’t feel that has changed one bit. I really don’t.”

Here’s a memo to everyone in the organization and clubhouse: Stop with the playoff talk and mentioning about how good you are until further notice. It sounds silly after you got swept by the Marlins. At home. When you just got your rear ends kicked by Washington and Atlanta on the last road trip.

You are 6-14 in June — fresh off one of the worst weekends in the history of the franchise. It is time to face the music on what you really are: Not good enough.

Once is a fluke. Twice is a trend. And we are now in the second year of a full-fledged collapse at the time of the season when things begin to matter. It was easy to chalk up what happened last summer to lack of talent. What’s the excuse this year after spending half a billion dollars? Money can’t buy love. It can’t buy a contender, either.

So, let’s start with Klentak, who did receive universal praise from the media for the moves that were made on paper. Klentak also used the awkward term of “objectively great” when he had his pre-Spring Training press conference two weeks before Bryce Harper signed. And When John Middleton made his comments at the Harper signing press conference to the gathered media, he threw in Hall of Fame caliber names.

“Seriously, Branch Rickey never has this kind of offseason,” Middleton said at the time. “Pat Gillick never had this kind of an offseason. I’m not telling you that he had the greatest single offseason in the history of baseball. But you know what? If you made that statement, people might quibble with it, but they can’t really argue with it too hard. Nobody has ever done what this kid [Klentak] has done.”

But judging an offseason in the heat of a Florida spring training can be a dangerous proposition. 

Right now, it is ebbing away from the Phillies... [and] they are all on the hook for this one unless they become “objectively great” in a hurry.

While Klentak was busy, it is clear that a lot got skipped along the way. The bench depth doesn’t exist. Maikel Franco should probably never have been counted on to hold third base. But the bigger crime was thinking that a starting rotation of Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez was going to find a way to contend for a whole summer — throw in Jerad Eickhoff if you wish. That was a pipe dream.

Not looking for reinforcements last year at the trade deadline — cough, Cole Hamels — was the wrong move. Failure to add reinforcements when you are putting together a half a billion-dollar payroll is negligence to the point of malpractice.

Branch Rickey or Pat Gillick probably would have figured that out. Hindsight may be 20/20, but baseball is the ultimate sport where hindsight comes into play. And in the pitching case, it isn’t too hard to figure out that Klentak’s decision on his starting rotation was fatally flawed.

That being said, Kapler is not without fault by any stretch of the imagination. Sunday’s “we’ll work harder than anyone else” sounded like a pep talk from the worst sports movie you would ever see. It also sounds comically flawed when you consider that two times this week, Kapler failed to punish two guys in Jean Segura and Cesar Hernandez for failing to run out balls.

There are explanations and ramifications for every move that was made. For example: why is it that J.P. Crawford and Carlos Santana — guys who struggled big time last year here under John Mallee — are performing much better in their new environments? Why is it that a series of guys who are here right now — Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Segura to name three — are performing way below their normal career goals.

And yet, Kapler sounded almost comically amused when the idea was brought up because, after all, the numbers never lie.

“We don’t look at stretches that bring our batting averages down by even 50 points because we know that happens over the course of a season,” Kapler said. “And we know that Jean Segura is over the last three years a .300 hitter. So, we know that he’s going to be somewhere in that neighborhood at the end of the year. It’s not a sure thing. It’s like you can chalk it up, but that’s what we bet on. That’s what we do when we acquire great players. We say there’s going to be tough times. I’m not going to quit on our players in tough times. We’re going to trust them to be who they are. That’s what this game is all about. It’s ebbs and flows.”

Right now, it is ebbing away from the Phillies. The manager was the one on the front line of the anger on Sunday, but they are all on the hook for this one unless they become “objectively great” in a hurry.

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