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August 09, 2019

Kevin Cooney: Ignore the standings, 'this Phillies team isn’t close to being ready to win again'

Simply being a "nice guy" isn't enough reason to keep Gabe Kapler

For all of the gimmicks that an organization has at its marketing disposal, only one is a true-blue guarantee of selling tons of tickets.

It’s not a green furry mascot with body odor. It’s not bobbleheads and fireworks every night. It’s not personalized phone calls from members of the organization to season ticket holders, either.

The best marketing plan is winning. That’s why people bought tickets last March in dizzying numbers to a Phillies team that hadn’t cracked .500 since 2012 when Bryce Harper signed. They thought that the club was ready to win again.

No matter what the standings say, this Phillies team isn’t close to being ready to win again. And when a team doesn’t win, the fans get angry and search for a sign that the organization is feeling the same pain that they are.

So, in that sense, the Phils biggest problem right now may not be a field issue. It could rapidly become a major marketing issue — and the main focus is manager Gabe Kapler.

On Wednesday, Bob Nightengale wrote a story in USA Today from Phoenix that said that the Phillies front office stood firmly behind the embattled Kapler. That’s not anything new and it shouldn’t be unexpected with seven weeks left in the season and the club still hoping for fool’s gold coming in the form of an 86 win second wild card berth in the National League.

It is the next line that Phillies fans should find disturbing.

“They love his passion and sincerity,” Nightengale wrote. “They love his willingness to be fully indoctrinated in their organization, whether it’s telephoning and welcoming new employees, making ticket sales calls, or volunteering for research projects. They love his conviction and beliefs.”

Uh, what?

While it is understandable that you don’t want a manager to go down the Chip Kelly road and tell people not to look directly at him and try to make conversation while strolling the hallways, that’s not a good enough reason to keep him as the face of your franchise.

Want to have him make ticket calls? Give him a ticket office job. Send him to a gate to greet fans as they walk in the door. Put him in charge of research and development in the front office.

It is good that Gabe Kapler is a nice, smart guy who sounds like a team player. But there have been a lot of nice, smart guys who were team players that eventually became ex-managers of those same organizations when they didn’t win more than half of their games.

And ultimately, a manager who is trending towards a second straight sub-.500 season – and the Phillies are heading in that direction rapidly — with a payroll that featured a half a billion dollars in contract investment can’t be the front man of the franchise. And it shouldn’t be a reason to keep him in the dugout.

Nightengale didn’t just get that information out of the blue. Someone in the Phillies leadership had to present those beliefs to him. It is laying the groundwork for what may lie ahead in seven weeks, trying to set the stage for the ultimate decision. And the fact that it isn’t baseball reasons listed, but other internal office politics is a really bad sign for the organization.

Yes, Kapler would become a scapegoat for a front office that has its own share of questions and has made a ton of mistakes if he was fired. He is not the worst manager in the history of baseball by any stretch of the imagination. Kapler would probably get another crack at managing.

But if this Phillies team finishes fourth like the “guys in the desert” are seeming to project right now, you can’t have that spot be at Citizens Bank Park. It wouldn’t be fair to the organization and, in a way, it wouldn’t be right to Kapler to have him open the season churning on a Hibachi, waiting for the first four game losing streak to ignite the calls for dismissal next April or May.

There are legitimate baseball arguments to be made on either side of the “Keep Kapler” or “Fire Gabe” debate. If the Phillies want to keep Kapler and say that he deserves another year because of on field reasons — lack of talent given to him, injury issues, whatever — then just come out and say that.

The counter on that is to look and wonder what exactly he has done to move the needle on anything in a positive direction.

Who exactly has gotten better on this team under Kapler’s leadership? It hasn’t been the major free agents that have been brought in here like Harper. It wasn’t that way with Carlos Santana last season, either. The case can be made that J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura have stepped backwards as well this year. The young players — Rhys Hoskins, Scott Kingery primaril — have been good, but not great. And that’s not even counting a pitching staff that has one legitimate major league starter in Aaron Nola and perhaps one solid reliever in Hector Neris. The Phillies have been mixed with a blend of veterans and young arms during Kapler’s tenure and none of them has really taken a step forward.

What has to be considered extremely alarming out of the Nightengale article is the hint that the organization will using other factors to decide on whether to keep the manager or not. It gives the impression that either Kapler is a “yes man” to an organization that has committed major mistakes in the past year, failing to rock the boat at times when it absolutely needs someone to shout.

That’s because the other option is just incredibly baffling if it is true. If the Phillies believe that Gabe Kapler is a marketing plus for this team, then they really have no pulse on how their fan base feels about the situation and his leadership. They can’t sense the pure angst that Kapler’s handling of situations like the 14th and 15th innings concession against the White Sox last Friday night, the Segura and Cesar Hernandez non-hustles earlier in the summer, the babbling press conferences that just ignites talk radio lines.

While managers shouldn’t be fired and hired because of public perception exclusively, someone in the Phillies leadership had to present those beliefs to him as a main defense of Kapler is extremely alarming.

Because keeping Gabe Kapler as manager shouldn’t be decided because he’s a nice guy who is a good soldier and makes calls to season ticket holders.