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September 18, 2020

Kevin Cooney: Matt Klentak, Andy MacPhail need to go if Phillies hope to turn organization around

How can John Middleton sell another year of this front office — not just to the fans, but to guys like J.T. Realmuto and other potential free agents?

The visiting baseball clubhouse in RFK Stadium was a claustrophobic nightmare on that first Sunday in October, 2005. And yet, they had all gathered — 45 men in uniform, squeezed into a room that could hold about 30 max — watching a baseball game from 1,500 miles away on a 25-inch tube television mounted on the wall.

That Phillies team had 88 wins on their record, a budding cast of All-Stars with Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard getting going with “old guys” like Bobby Abreu. Plus, they had a farm system with a legitimate ace waiting in the wings in Cole Hamels, ready for call-up the following spring.

And yet, when the immortal Jose Macias lined out to Eric Bruntlett for the final out of Houston’s 6-4 win against the Chicago Cubs, that Phils team was going home for the 12th straight year without a playoff appearance. That’s when making the playoffs required some ability, not a decree from a commissioner to double in size.

Eight days later, Ed Wade — the man who built that franchise and resisted the call to trade Howard and Utley for immediate fixes — was fired as general manager. While nobody would ever say it was “the main reason,” it was clear that the club had come to the realization that there was no way they could sell another Wade team to a fan base that had run out of patience.

“We do listen to the fans and we try to connect to the fans," the team’s then-president, David Montgomery, said to the Associated Press at the time.

If they couldn’t sell that team — in a brand new ballpark, in a surging economy and with a core that made people feel positive about baseball — how in the world could this franchise sell another year of Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak?

Another season of the worst bullpen in baseball history. Another year of trades that they never win. Another year of a farm system running a treadmill of mediocrity. Another year where the National League East swallows them whole with a rich new owner of the Mets, a deep farm bench for the Braves and the Marlins constantly kicking their behinds.

How in the world do you sell any of it — even if a pandemic eases and you possibly can fill the seats in South Philly?

That’s what John Middleton should be asking himself this weekend, when the bafflingly 2020 edition makes its South Philadelphia exit before a week on the road to Washington and Tampa Bay with the faint hopes of flying 3,500 miles to play the Los Angeles Dodgers in a potential playoff matchup.

How could you possibly re-sell another MacPhail/Klentak production in 2021? How do you frame yourself as one of those passionate people who have developed stomach ulcers these past two months watching multi-run leads melt on a nightly basis if you stand by and say status quo is the way to go?

Wade was in year eight in 2005, hindered by a bad ballpark for six of them that gave no revenue streams. This group is wrapping up the fifth season with an owner who spent enormous money for Bryce Harper and Zack Wheeler. Yes, there is the dilemma of why Middleton didn’t OK for additional revenue to go over the luxury tax to pay for a major league-level bullpen. That’s a question the owner has to answer to whenever this mess is complete.

But when the payroll gets to $200 million, it is fair to wonder why it a general manager needs to go back to the well again for more and more? If you believe that Middleton personally oversaw two big money deals – Harper ($27.5 million) and Jake Arrieta ($20 million) — that still doesn’t account for $150 million of payroll.

What has become clear is this is an organizational failure. Klentak takes the heat because he’s the upfront guy, and there’s a lot of merit to that... MacPhail, however, was supposed to be the adult in the room.

For example, Jean Segura makes $15 million this year under a full season payroll. Part of the reason for that high figure for a good-not-great player is a salary dump because you made the ill-conceived decision to sign Carlos Santana to a position you didn’t need another player at with Rhys Hoskins developing.

That Odubel Herrera $7.5 million on the books this year is compounded with a $10.35 million paycheck for 2021. All for a player that there were red flags popping up in the organization that Klentak was acting too much and too soon. In his first two years, Herrera had WAR ratings of a combined 8.7. After signing the deal, Herrera’s combined WAR from 2017 to his final game in 2019 was 2.3.

Andrew McCutchen will make $20 million in 2021. Nobody has represented the game better than McCutchen over the years as one of the game’s great gentlemen. He certainly has a spot on a major league roster. But who exactly was Klentak bidding against for Andrew McCutchen at three years and $50 million during the 2018-19 off-season when he had just turned 32? To contrast, Michael Brantley got two years and $32 million from the Astros that same winter. Brantley has an .872 OPS over the last two seasons. McCutchen carries a .786 OPS — although the knee injury last year limited his available at-bats.

This roster has been revealed as shallow by injuries and overpriced in payroll. The only way that the Phillies formula works, also, is if you have a minor league system that can produce solid major league level guys to fill a position on your roster year after year. Alec Bohm could end up being that, but remember that Hoskins and Maikel Franco had two month bursts as well. And honestly, they haven’t/never did develop into what the organization sold as a group.

And then, there’s the bullpen. Look, bullpen development is harder than you would think. It can shift quickly and guys lose it on the drop of a hat. But five years of bullpens that range from “eh” to shrieking awfulness means you are doing something wrong. It has become a blind spot they can’t correct.

What has become clear is this is an organizational failure. Klentak takes the heat because he’s the upfront guy, and there’s a lot of merit to that. His trade record has been less than stellar, to say the least. He kept standing behind Gabe Kapler even when the evidence was that the time had come for a separation. It almost feels too easy to beat up on the guy these days.

MacPhail, however, was supposed to be the adult in the room. He was the guy with a few rings on his hand and the family pedigree in the game – the one who mixed new age baseball with old school scouting feel. He would guide the first-time GM away from things that could derail the process. He would be the elder statesman presence that would pave the way forward. On the surface, it feels like none of that has happened.

Since MacPhail has arrived, he has been stealthy at best. There are a lot of people who wonder what his role in the organization really is. Perhaps more damningly, the few times a year when MacPhail does talk — spring training, All-Star Break, end of the season — he usually drains a ton of energy out of the organization’s relationship with the general public. In retrospect, he has been the wrong man for this market.

From the outside, it is becoming clear the Phillies need an invested team president and a talented general manager with both analytic and baseball ability to insure that this rebuild doesn’t crumble to nothing.

When Pat Gillick returned to the Phillies in 2014-15 to oversee the transition of the organization after Montgomery’s illness, the general belief was he became a guiding voice for Ruben Amaro Jr., as this was broken apart, to bounce stuff off as another baseball mind. Whenever Gillick spoke at that point, it was about the on-field product because that’s where his expertise was. It wasn’t about lights, food options and security around the ballpark. During that time, Gillick was completely visible, entirely honest and an adult that the fan base could believe in. MacPhail has been none of those things.

Take all of this into account and it leads back to the original question: How do you sell this team with Matt Klentak and Andy MacPhail still in charge? That’s not just for the fans, who may or may not be in the stands next season depending on what happens with COVID-19.

How do you convince J.T. Realmuto – who is arguably the most important player in your organization — to stay with a franchise spinning its wheels in mud? When the Yankees, Mets or Astros present a big contact offer to the “Best Catcher In Baseball” this winter before Realmuto turns 30, what could the Phillies possibly defend themselves with when the subject of competitiveness comes up?

And if Realmuto walks, what does Bryce Harper think? Yes, he’s here for 11 more seasons. That contract is likely not going to move. Realmuto, however, is clearly his guy. Even from a social distance, that’s pretty clear. Watching Realmuto walk out the door one year after Harper watched his former team hoist a Commissioner’s Trophy may make the rightfielder wonder if he made a big mistake. A less-than-happy Bryce is not a good Bryce.

How do you convince a free agent starting pitcher that he would thrive here behind Wheeler and Aaron Nola if he ever takes one glimpse of the bullpen ERA?

From the outside, it is becoming clear the Phillies need an invested team president and a talented general manager with both analytic and baseball ability to insure that this rebuild doesn’t crumble to nothing.

Fifteen autumns ago, David Montgomery could have taken the easy path and stayed the course with a team that was on the brink of a playoff spot. Instead, he realized he couldn’t sell the status quo again and hired Gillick to bridge the gap.

Three years later, they were all on parade floats.

If John Middleton wants his damn trophy back, he better be asking the same exact question that Montgomery did. And he would be wise to heed history.

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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