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June 21, 2019

Kevin Cooney: Slumping Phillies' manager Gabe Kapler deserves a break... for now

When Chase Utley walks onto the green grass of a sold out Citizens Bank Park on Friday night, the memories at hand will not be about Cole Irvin pitching the ninth inning of a 3-1 game, Jean Segura casual attempt to make a double into a single or a team that appears ready to backslide off a cliff before the first 4th of July firework is lit.

And for a moment, Gabe Kapler can take a breath. He won’t have to worry about anyone heckling him or calling for his job for 20 whole minutes before the waves of Philadelphia fan anger crash down again.

But in a sense, that fury never has relented from Kapler. Not from that opening series in Atlanta last year when he pulled Aaron Nola early and then followed the next night with the bullpen call to nobody.

And there’s no sense it’s going to end at any point in the near future, either. Not with the Phillies in a June free fall that threatens to take what was supposed to be a brilliant Philadelphia baseball summer and end it long before the first Wentz-to-Jeffrey pass at training camp in July.

Take whatever reason you want — quirky personality, relative youth for the position, a few questionable moves, an endlessly positive message that doesn’t usually gibe in “Negadelphia” — but Kapler has become in two years one of the biggest lightning rods in Philadelphia sports history. In modern times, he would rank right up on the list with Sam Hinkie and Chip Kelly. It is rarified air.

Let’s start this portion of the column with one simple disclaimer: if you are among those who think that Kapler’s leash could get yanked in the short term and a change in the managerial office taking place, forget about it. If the Phillies slide continues, it is possible other coaches — John Mallee being the most logical — could go.

Too much, however, has been invested in Kapler by Matt Klentak and Andy MacPhail to not allow him to turn this season around. If things don’t change by the end of the year, it is conceivable and perhaps even likely that a move would be made on the manager.

But for an in-season managerial move, it would take John Middleton coming in and making a move himself. And while it is great that Middleton wants to win and be an active owner, having a meddling owner isn’t good for the franchise either.

There’s also this: baseball managers don’t have the power they used to anymore to make universal decisions when it comes to playing time of the roster at hand.

Everyone can look at Dallas Green, Charlie Manuel or Larry Bowa trying to send messages through the locker room with a punishing hook by their pens. But those days are so dated, they may as well be on newsreels in black and white film.

Kapler was the front guy for the decision to not bench Segura after his second violation in three weeks of the “just hustle” mantra. He said all the right things. But honestly, it wouldn’t be shocking if the “powers that be” above him probably had some say in the decision— even if it was only to offer casual advice.

There’s a reason why analytics departments now travel with teams and the ultimate decision makers come from the 4th floor suites and not the dugout office. The lineup card decision may ride with the manager. But you better have a damn good reason on why you are doing things before you put that order down in ink.

The thing is that Kapler would have had a damn good reason to sit Segura on Thursday. Take the home run Segura hit out of the equation and answer this: Would the Phillies be better served in the long run if a message was sent through the clubhouse that there are rules and you must live by them or face consequences?

Two weeks before, Kapler did an honorable thing in standing up for his player in the heated exchange with 94 WIP’s Angelo Cataldi after the Segura pop-up eventually turned into the Andrew McCutchen injury. It was the best sign of “I’ve got your back” that a manager could give his clubhouse.

Segura didn’t reciprocate — instead putting Kapler in a position that he really shouldn’t have been forced into with a tough choice of either sacrificing a game or two with a benching or potentially sacrificing part of his control in the clubhouse by doing nothing.

Kapler chose to do the latter. Whether there are consequences down the road to that decision remains to be seen.

However, at some point, the former player in Kapler will have to give way to the “guy who wants to remain a major league manager” trait. Former players may understand what a guy goes through on a given night and may be more forgiving initially. The guy who wants to remain in that dugout seat will realize that a hammer will eventually have to be dropped on someone for preservation.

Some of the criticism of Kapler’s in-game moves are more than fair. Putting Irvin in the late innings of a 3-1 game in the first contest of Wednesday’s doubleheader was almost managerial malpractice. So is Sean Rodriguez’s 3-0 green light earlier in the sixth inning of the same contest because — well, Rodriguez wasn’t expected to see any significant playing time until 10 days ago.

The thing is that you could break a lot of the young managers in the game today and see some of the same type of head scratching moves every night. Flip on any national game or Extra Innings package contest and you will quickly realize this isn’t a Kapler-exclusive problem. Aaron Boone has it from time to time. So does David Bell in Cincinnati. It is part of the transformation of the position that sees managers too often looking at spreadsheets exclusively without a true feel for what goes on within a game.

The important thing for Kapler and the Phillies right now is to turn this ship around. Maybe they were not as good as they looked during those series against the Cubs and Brewers or that April solid start. It is doubtful that they can look as putrid for the rest of the year as they do right now. Having 10 straight against the Marlins and the Mets should provide an opportunity to get some balance back.

The storm has rocked the boat that Kapler and the Phillies are riding on, battering it pretty good. But this will be the time you find out if the man in the manager’s office is the right guy for the job — or someone who will go down with the ship.