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September 11, 2015

Middleton's perfect GM hire? A 30-year-old Andy MacPhail

After Andy MacPhail fired Ruben Amaro, Jr. on Thursday, he said the process of trying to find a replacement would start once he got off the podium he was speaking from. That wasn’t literally true (he did a few more interviews after stepping down), but his point was well taken: The search for a new general manager is on like Donkey Kong.

MacPhail admitted that firing Amaro was more difficult than initially anticipated, but this next step could be even more challenging. It’s one thing to cut ties with someone who you believe is the wrong fit, but that doesn’t matter if you can’t both identify and land the right one. So, who should MacPhail hire? His boss had a pretty original answer.

“Let me tell you what I think and what I’ve told Andy he needs to do,” John Middleton said. “He needs to hire himself.”

Total control. President and general manager, aka “The Hinkie.” Unfortunately, I’m playing a small journalistic trick here. There was more to Middleton’s answer, quite a bit more actually…

“And I say that because thirty years ago, a very young Andy MacPhail was general manager, a newly minted general manger at that in Minnesota," Middleton continued. "And this guy was sitting in an office in Minneapolis and he was playing with mathematical, statistical, analytical tools. And he was using them to try to figure out how he could make better evaluations, and therefore better personnel decisions. So if you stop and think about how did a young, mid-30s guy who is newly minted, never had the job before, do that? The answer is because he’s constantly pushing himself to get better.”

The public face of the Phillies’ ownership group is a captivating speaker, but there is a reason that quote was broken up for effect. Unintentionally, he highlighted the fact that Andy MacPhail is already here. Would mid-30s whiz kid Andy MacPhail want to work for 62-year-old Andy MacPhail if the latter was going to be making all of the decisions? This is the dilemma that the very accomplished executive currently faces.

Middleton wasn’t wrong when he rattled off the reasons why the Phillies’ general manager job is attractive. There is the retooled farm system with high-level prospects at Double-A or higher, an impressive spring training facility, a huge fan base that will sell out the ballpark every night if the team is good, onerous contracts coming off the books shortly, and last but not least, the organization’s deep pockets.

"[MacPhail] has to find a partner who can drive that culture, who can drive that change and work with him to do that," Middleton said.

Heck, the Phillies might also have the top overall pick in next year’s draft as an extra sweetener. Of the six current GM openings (counting the Marlins, a kinda weird situation), CBS Sports ranked the Phils second in terms of desirability only behind the Boston Red Sox. One of the major cons that they predictably listed is a “dominant front office voice already in place.”

For his part, MacPhail seems pretty self-aware about his situation. The president-elect is going to be heavily involved and likely running the baseball operations, but MacPhail knows there is a balance he will need to strike with Amaro’s successor.

“I've had GMs under me before,” MacPhail said. “If you talk to them, I think they feel like they had a fair amount of autonomy, which I think is important to them to be able to do their job. They can't be in short pants running back to the president every time they have to make a decision.”

MacPhail says he will look at a wide spectrum of candidates. The search could include both young quants and experienced baseball lifers at the same time. He hopes to have a candidate by the time organizational meetings roll around at the end of October but admitted that timeline might be “ambitious.”

One quality that MacPhail emphasized he is looking for in a general manager is someone who looks toward the future. Basically, he wants the opposite of a manager, a short-term thinker by trade.

“The consequences of what we do today, what impact is that going to have on me in a variety of different ways, two or three years down the road?” MacPhail said. “Then you have two people who are looking at things a little bit differently.”

When asked the same question, Middleton played up adaptability and flexibility. The Phillies’ laughable analytics disadvantage isn’t about number crunching as much as a reluctance to change. Middleton, who brought up Tiger Woods tweaking his swing in the prime of his career as an example of the thinking he is looking for, doesn’t want an organization that is set in its ways ever again.

“So if you hire somebody today and they’re a one-trick pony and all they can do is fix today’s problems, they’re not going to be successful five years from now,” Middleton said. “So that’s what we have to do as an organization and [MacPhail] has to find a partner who can drive that culture, who can drive that change and work with him to do that.”

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann