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July 26, 2021

Kevin Cooney: Deadline buyers or not, Phillies should spend second half of season looking inward

More important than 'going for it' this season, Philly must come up with a plan to get its organization back on the right track.

In any other division, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

When a team enters the week of the trade deadline at .500, normally it is not a question of buyers or sellers. And in any division not named the National League East, the Phillies would be at least 8.5 games back with no realistic discussion of “going for it.”

So when Dave Dombrowski talked on Saturday about “not being in a position to move players” as sellers and being aggressive about adding talent, it is not a reflection on the merits of this club as a potential August-September surge. Instead, it is one that is necessitated by the optics that are required when you can count the number of games back you are of a division title on one hand.

When you haven’t made a post-season run in 10 years, the focus tends to — rightfully — be on that when you are close enough to taste it, no matter how mediocre the rest of the division is. However, one thing that shouldn’t be lost in the equation is what the stated "bigger picture" is here, and that’s to be a contender to win the whole thing and “get the damn trophy back.” 

And nothing that the front office could do this week puts them in a realistic discussion to do that.

What the 2021 National League East has done is allow the Phillies to evaluate things on a twin path. One is the here and now, surging to make a playoff spot that will finally end the talk of the drought – the longest among National League teams and second longest to the Mariners’ 19-season playoff-less streak in the sport.

The other — and perhaps the more important of the two — is doing a two-month realistic self-check on everything involved with the culture of the franchise that has almost nothing to do with whether the Phillies ultimately make the playoffs or not.

It will be done with different eyes in Dombrowski and general manager Sam Fuld than in the past. Dombrowski’s track record should give you faith in his evaluation and the ownership seems willing to go along with the necessary changes that would result in a winning atmosphere.

And unlike this past off-season, this review will not be done in a pandemic and uncertainty about revenues coming in — although there are looming labor issue this offseason that could result in a lockout eventually. And it should focus on culture more than anything else.

That word — culture — has a lot of different variables in it and there are some who snap their heads when they hear it. The instant reaction is that people think mentioning a culture change means a team is filled with bad and selfish guys who don’t play hard. That’s not the meaning in this terminology. And it also doesn’t mean getting rid of Joe Girardi, because that card has been played and it didn’t work time and time again.

With locker room access so limited for the media right now, it is almost impossible to get a sense on what the locker room vibe really is and the attitude going through it. You can talk on the periphery to people who come in and out, but nothing replaces standing in a clubhouse as a reporter, seeing and hearing stuff with your own eyes. And there’s a good deal of evidence that there is effort from this team. It may not be good play, but that doesn’t mean a lack of effort.

When I’m talking about culture, it comes down to the simple question of why is it that the results over the last four years really haven’t changed from mediocre despite a few different managers, a front office change and several roster upgrades.

Why has fielding — once the franchise’s ultimate hallmark of reliability — become so atrociously bad? What is it about approaches with runners in scoring position so brutal? Last week, the Phillies were 5-for-51 with runners in scoring position (.098). Is it realistic to think a team can go on that kind of a prolonged drought and find a way to make it work? And why is it that the organization constantly overvalues its own prospects, only to see they are flawed after they build them up.

The flip answer is that “it is what it is." But .500 teams shouldn’t carry rosters that push up against the luxury tax unless you are wrongly identifying and paying talent – which is a definite possibility. Teams that haven’t made the playoffs for a decade shouldn’t have a farm system that generously can be ranked in the bottom third of the sport.

When Ed Wade took over for Lee Thomas as general manager in the late 1990s, he established “The Phillies Way” – a look at what the organization did and what needed to change in approach. Those changes ultimately helped produce an abundant farm system and the core unit of a World Champion.

It is time to look at that model again, evaluating the player development system, scouting, the way analytics are used and processed and other topics involving the franchise. And the self-study should force you to have a clearer understanding of why this team spins its wheels in the mud constantly.

Yes, the deadline is the flash issue. And if there’s no move on Friday at 4 p.m., a lot of people are going to simply throw their hands up and protest. But in reality, whatever is done is immaterial for the future of the franchise. That has to start right now with a good hard look in the mirror.

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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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