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June 25, 2019

Paul Hagen: Phillies, GM Matt Klentak opting for patience over clubhouse shakeup

Klentak has decided to take the new-school approach and not make any changes to his team — including manager Gabe Kapler. Only time will tell if that's the right move.

The Nationals did it Sunday when they released reliever Trevor Rosenthal, eating the remainder of his $8 million contract in the process.

The Mets did it last week, cutting ties with pitching coach Dave Eiland and bullpen coach Chuck Hernandez.

For over a hundred years, baseball teams have been known to make changes simply to shake things up when performance falls short of expectation.

Matt Klentak couldn’t disagree more.

The Phillies general manager sat on a hot seat, both symbolically and literally, before Monday night’s 13-7 win over the Mets at Citizens Bank Park. His team was fresh off being swept at home by the last-place Marlins. In the bigger picture, the Phils had gone from 3.5 games up to 6.5 down (entering play Monday) in a stunningly short period of time. He’s been taking his share of flak, so it was apt that the late afternoon sun was baking the blue bench padding in the home dugout where he settled in to field questions about this Nightmare on Broad Street portion of the season.

“I’m very well aware of all the criticism right now of the manager, of the coaching staff, of certain players,” he began. “I’m not naïve.

“My view right now is that the wrong thing to do is to point a finger at any one person and say, ‘You are the reason this is happening.’ I do not believe that. We have had a tough time hitting the baseball. We have had a tough time keeping the ball in the park when we’re on the mound. And we’ve had a really tough time with the injury bug. It’s very difficult for me to say that’s on any one person.

“As a result, I believe that the best thing we can do is rally together. And do this together. And commit to each other that we are going to get through this together. . .To lose faith in our players, to lose faith in our staff, it would be the wrong thing to do at this time.”

Then again, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting, well, everybody knows the rest of that quote.

Specifically, Klentak gave ringing endorsements to manager Gabe Kapler and hitting coach John Mallee. That’s not what large swaths of the increasingly disgruntled fan base wanted to hear, but Klentak’s passion and sincerity were unmistakable.

If you’re so inclined, plenty of valid reasons can be cited not to make any changes. The season has yet to reach its mathematical halfway point (although that one expires with Thursday’s series finale against the Mets). The new stars who have largely underachieved to this point – Bryce Harper, Jean Segura, J.T. Realmuto – will almost certainly be closer to their career norms by the end of the season (although Carlos Santana didn’t rebound until this year, after he’d been traded).

There have been injuries (although every team has injuries). The manager and coaching staff can’t hit or pitch or run the bases for the players (although hundreds of managers and coaches have been fired over the years despite that reality).

Heck, at a point in baseball history when managers have less autonomy than ever, we don’t even know for sure who’s making the final decisions on some of the issues that have caused so much angst.

The trick is always to find the sweet spot between panicking and waiting until it’s too late. That’s where the Phillies uneasily rest at the moment. 

When things start to go badly – and this has been a breathtaking reversal of fortune – it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to throw out some red meat to placate the fans and media. Fire somebody. Release somebody. At least bench somebody, for crying out loud. Any of the above can send a message to the clubhouse that shoddy play and lack of hustle won’t be tolerated.

The Phillies are opting for a more new age approach. Team-centric, Klentak called it. They’re taking the position that there’s no evidence that the old ways are actually effective. They’re suggesting that the sugar high that comes with a dramatic action now can actually do more harm than good in the long run.

Klentak said that he spent some time in the clubhouse Monday afternoon, taking the pulse of the team. “There is no panic in that room,” he reported.

Whether you think that’s a good thing or not probably depends on where you fit on a scale of millennial-to-dinosaur.

So now we’ll see how the players respond. It’s a little disappointing that, as far as we know, none of the veterans has called a players-only meeting. Maybe I just think that because I covered Darren Daulton a long time ago — or maybe it’s because there just isn’t that sort of personality in the current clubhouse. At any rate, that’s another old-timey baseball tradition that seems to be fading into the mists of history.

Klentak appears to be betting the season on the notion that this is a better team than has been evident the last few weeks and that patience is a better antidote to what ails this club than rattling the cage.  

“Sitting here today, we’re a game out of the playoffs, very much in the mix,” he said in answer to a question about adding before the July 31 trading deadline. “We need to start playing better. If we keep playing like this, we won’t be a game out of the playoffs a month from now.”

That’s for sure.

The trick is always to find the sweet spot between panicking and waiting until it’s too late.

That’s where the Phillies uneasily rest at the moment. Even if sticking with a pat hand is the correct path, it’s not going to be enough for it to work. It had better start working pretty damn soon.

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