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August 27, 2021

Kevin Cooney: The Phillies are trapped in a vicious cycle of their own making

The organization must break the cycle, but it's easier to change managers or throw money at the problem than make the meaningful changes required

The scene on a humidity-choken late August Thursday night has been one repeated for so many times over the past decade.

A half-empty stadium. An almost entirely disinterested crowd, many of whom are looking intently at their cell phones for a message. A baseball team that looked completely overwhelmed or completely disinterested against an inferior team that somehow found their swag against them.

The standings tell you that there is still time for the 2021 Phillies to do something. The brain and the heart tell you that it is once again over — another October freed of playoff plans and filled with the second guessing of where it all went wrong.

And that is what is truly depressing at this point. The franchise has fallen into a vicious cycle of hope, disappointment, repeat. The manager and coaches may change. The general manager and support staff can get replaced. The results stay the same.

So let’s start with the basic point there: at some point, the cycle must be broken. And the Phillies are going to have to do it with a different approach than what has been done in the past.

In this space, we have stressed the idea of an organizational self-evaluation in the second half of this season for months now. And Dave Dombrowski has begun that process with Tuesday’s announcement of front office changes that have shuffled members of the baseball personnel staff — namely Bryan Minniti, Scott Proefrock and Josh Bonifay. The moves make it perfectly clear that the club’s focus is on organizational development.

The Phillies find themselves here because of the farm systems shortcomings. You don’t need to be Branch Rickey to understand that spending two Top 10 first round picks – Mickey Moniak and Adam Haseley — on borderline reserve outfielders in a disaster. So either the people who made the draft day call on those players screwed up or the coaches in the minor leagues that are tasked with development didn’t do their job. Either way, that must change.

The underlying point is that the weakness in the system has created a roster that is severely and potentially fatally flawed. So much of the heat for this season has been dumped in Joe Girardi’s lap for various reasons. There are a lot of things he should take blame for, but any roster that has Odubel Herrera and Travis Jankowski in a starting lineup in 2021 is a severely flawed one.

And this speaks back into the vicious cycle of the franchise. The easiest thing to do would be to fire Girardi with one guaranteed year left on his contract. (There is a 2023 option as well.) But how often have the Phillies since 2012 gone down that easy road of almost blood-thirsty appeasement, creating a sacrificial lamb?

This isn’t saying Gabe Kapler was a great manager here. He wasn’t and he was a bad fit from the start. But doesn’t Kapler’s success in San Francisco this year – thanks in large part to a good core clubhouse group led by Buster Posey and a strong front office under Farhan Zaidi — tell you that maybe it isn’t always the manager, the hitting coach or pitching coach that’s to blame?

Again, Girardi isn’t without blame. His feel for the game – one of the things that was supposedly a strength — has been woefully lacking this year. His body language has been downright awful at times as well.

But what is a man supposed to do when his starting pitcher for the night is activated from the injured list at 2:30 p.m., then scratched mysteriously at 4 p.m. from that night’s start for the same reason he was on the IL to begin with?

Yes, that gets to the medical staff as well. This hasn’t been a great year or decade for them, either. The Rhys Hoskins and Zach Eflin situation on Thursday made you wonder what the heck happened to break things down this poorly. Hoskins had been in and out of the lineup since late July because of a groin/abdominal issue and has never looked right. Eflin’s return from a knee injury ended before it could begin, and now would seemingly threaten the rest of his season. Something clearly broke down in this process.

There have been changes in this area over the years – namely Scott Sheridan’s removal as head athletic trainer in 2019 — but it is clear that the same problems remain. And when the organization looks at the big picture, that should be one area of deep focus.

Again, this is a vicious cycle. It’s one that the Phillies have tried to fix over the last four years with a few big moves of a splashy signing of a player like Bryce Harper, a hiring of big name manager and general manager. It has clearly not worked.

No, this must be more organic. It must come from doing the fundamental things exemplary well. The organizational identity should be focused on little things like a good farm system, an emphasis on defense and support staff that protects players from themselves at times instead of always going for the big swing to win the headlines.

Going for the big move is what created August nights of empty stands where people are more interested in playing on their phones than watching the players in the game. For any organization, that should scare the hell out of them.

Kevin hosts the “Working The Beat” podcast with Mike Kern, available on iTunes, Google Play and everywhere podcasts are heard. A regular on WIP, Kevin loves to interact with readers on Twitter. Follow him there at @KevinCooney.

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