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July 18, 2019

Kevin Cooney: Phillies' struggles put owner John Middleton in a tough spot moving forward

A move to change the team's power structure now could make him look rash, but not doing anything could cause the fans to turn on him — and the team.

Phillies MLB
John-Middleton-Phillies_071819_usat Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Phillies managing partner John Middleton at Bryce Harper's introductory press conference during spring training.

When you look across Darien Street from Citizens Bank Park — near where the old welcome center existed to show the ballpark off before it was built to suite holders — there’s a brand new building with the Phillies logo that is going up in front of it.

That building is a result of John Middleton in a lot of ways.

It is a variety of different offices that have moved from the big ballpark to across the street because there was simply no more room in the current structure with the swelling of the club’s staff that ranges from social media accounts to baseball analytics over the past five years.

It is a testament to what Middleton wanted to do when he became much more vocal in the summer of 2015 as the Phillies owner — he wanted to move the organization into a different direction.

And in that sense, John Middleton is the one who got the Phillies into the analytic age. Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak were brought in to lay the foundation for that, but it was clear that it came at Middleton’s direction.

“You have to be comfortable looking at anything you can possibly look at to get some sort of edge competitively to make a better decision,” Middleton said at the MacPhail introductory press conference on June 29, 2015.. “So it’s just inconceivable to me that you’d hire somebody who just shut out a big chunk of valuable information. I wouldn’t do it.”

Which leads us to today, with a franchise that is floundering right now, a team president and a general manager under fire and an owner who has kept his current thoughts to himself for the most part. The only real news that has come from the inner sanctum was the revelation in a Matt Gelb piece in “The Athletic” that both MacPhail and Klentak were given contract extensions during the Halcyon days after the post-Bryce Harper signing when money flowed into One Citizens Bank Way like Texas crude in an oil pipeline.

Until Middleton either comes out to speak his mind or makes a move on one of the big three — MacPhail, Klentak or manager Gabe Kapler — then it is impossible to speculate on what exactly is going through the Phillies owners mind. At some point, that’s going to happen and the best bet for that would probably be at the end of the season.

Is it probably safe to say he’s disappointed and more than a little annoyed? You bet.

Expecting him to go full George Steinbrenner right now? That’s a bit of an extreme since we’ve never seen him do that before as the face of an ownership group. And yes, there is a difference.

Owners know that if they end up flying off the handle and doing something rash, it can give off the impression to people they may want to hire as being too involved and too impulsive. It took Steinbrenner’s suspension and Gene Michael taking over to get the Yankees back into the dynasty mode. Peter Angelos buried the Orioles for years with his rash and dysfunctional methods.

To use real world terminology, think about it this way: You certainly don’t mind having your boss hold you to a standard of performance at work. You don’t want your boss to be so overreaching that he fires you at the drop of a hat, however. People who work in baseball organizations live with the thought that the ax could drop at any point. The one thing they ask for is a fair chance.

If [Middleton] feels that things are going to crater for the Phillies at the box office next year because of the reaction to MacPhail, Klentak and Kapler ... it wouldn’t be shocking at all to watch him write a check to make the problems go away.

When MacPhail and Klentak came in, the baseball operations for the Phillies were struggling. Ruben Amaro Jr. gets a lot of heat, but not all of that was deserved. It was a process that is the end result of a team having its run of strong finishes coming to an end through the passage of time and some misplaced faith. Middleton knew that he had to give a new regime time to clean up the mess and to build up.

You can certainly question whether this team is where it should be, analyize the club’s drafts and feel free to make a negative judgment. But understand that for Middleton, making a switch in mid-season on any part of this would be an admission of total failure of that initial plan of his to bring the organization forward with a more data-driven thinking.

But we also know that Middleton is extremely competitive and he’s also very business savvy. The choice of Harper over Manny Machado for a big money contract was done in a lot of ways because of fan reaction and preference. If he feels that things are going to crater for the Phillies at the box office next year because of the reaction to MacPhail, Klentak and Kapler — or just because he feels that this is as far as this group can go — it wouldn’t be shocking at all to watch him write a check to make the problems go away.

It’s almost a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t situation for Middleton. If he makes a move on the power structure that he put in, it's an admission of failure on his choice of evaluators. If he doesn’t, then he is risking losing fans and a large part of his “Common Billionaire” image.

It isn’t just as easy as building a new building and hiring new people to make a baseball team a contender again. And for John Middleton, the data that is coming in during 2019 is showing that.


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