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May 16, 2016

Phillies’ new & (vastly) improved brain trust thinking outside the box score

Ruben Amaro is gone. David Montgomery is powerless. Ryne Sandberg is forgotten. The Phillies’ decision-makers of the past few seasons are nowhere in sight these days, and the standings reflect this positive new direction.

Last year at this time, the Phils were 15-23, their manager was Sandberg and their GM was Amaro. Montgomery had just lost his title as president. Today, the Phils have a brain trust of president Andy MacPhail, GM Matt Klentak and manager Pete Mackanin. They are an amazing 22-16. This is no coincidence.

It is now safe to say the Phillies have upgraded their operation, in every way. They are smarter, bolder, less sentimental and have actually transported themselves into the 21st century.

These are not the same old Phillies anymore.

Granted, those “old” Phillies had a terrific run of their own, capped by a championship in 2008. Montgomery was an efficient, congenial administrator. Unfortunately, Montgomery kept trying to set the clock back to 2008. Amaro and Sandberg, by any measure, were total disasters.

The best example of the contrast between the old and the new is the way they have handled promising young players. A case in point is ex-closer Ken Giles, who spent two months too long in the minors until the team had secured an extra year of eligibility for him. To get a better deal, those Phils sacrificed the big-league team.

Last Friday, the new guys proved how different they are. Three weeks from gaining an extra season before free agency, young slugger Tommy Joseph was summoned to supplant Darin Ruf as the right-handed bat in the first-base platoon. The bosses know the current team is not playoff-bound, but they made the move anyway.

Why? Because priorities have changed, for the better, since the old guard left. The real force behind the changes is John Middleton, the billionaire cigar magnate who wants to be as big a winner in baseball as he was in business. Impatient by nature, Middleton has managed, so far, to stifle his admiration for marquee names.

In fact, the last guy anyone aspiring to be the next George Steinbrenner would have hired as manager after Sandberg quit last season was a nondescript baseball lifer named Pete Mackanin, 64 years old and never – until now – the first choice to run a big-league team.

The most implausible part of this Phillies resurgence has been Mackanin, who has artfully blended young players like Maikel Franco and Aaron Nola with old-timers like Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz. Above all, Mackanin is a master communicator – in two languages, no less – which is a startling contrast to the tongue-tied Sandberg.

Despite his conservative nature, Mackanin is not averse to taking calculated strategic risks. He won a game on Friday night with a squeeze play. When is the last time a Phillies manager did that?

At the moment, the Phillies have a roster with not a single player in his prime. The starting rotation combines a journeyman, Jeremy Hellickson, with kids like Nola and Vince Velasquez. The bullpen is a crew comprised of not a single name any Phillies fan could have identified one year ago.

What these new Phillies do have is the newfangled science of the 35-year old Klentak, the winning pedigree of MacPhail and the take-no-prisoners style of Middleton. Add those ingredients to the masterful work of Mackanin, and you might just end up with a 22-16 record in the middle of May.

These are definitely not the same old Phillies anymore.

***

As agent Tom Condon continued to chew on his foot and reluctant quarterback Sam Bradford kept his face out of the spotlight, a question emerged last week that could bring clarity to this Eagles’ roster mess: What if Carson Wentz is already better than Bradford?

Think about it for a moment. The Eagles clearly believe the kid quarterback from North Dakota State has the potential to be far more effective than the seven-year veteran bust. They wouldn’t have risked their immediate draft future if they didn’t believe that. Those who watched Bradford flounder last season no doubt would agree.

But the assumption has always been that it will take Wentz at least a season to make the transition from Division 1AA to the NFL. What if he doesn’t need that much time? With his 4.0 grade-point average and natural football skills, who’s to say he’s not already ahead of Bradford in picking up coach Doug Pederson’s new system?

In his few weeks here, Wentz has demonstrated that he has a few advantages over Bradford beyond intellect. He is definitely more competitive; remember, Bradford demanded a trade when he knew he would have to compete for the starting job. And the kid is far more elusive. A snail could probably beat Bradford in the 40.

And what about maturity? Yes, Bradford is five years older than Wentz, but which quarterback has seemed more confident so far? Is there any question that Wentz is winning that battle, too?

What Bradford doesn’t know – because he never bothers to consider the fans – is that Philadelphia is no longer rooting for him. Despite the Eagles’ plan to bring Wentz along slowly, the novice will have all of the fan support from the first day of training camp.

Meanwhile, Bradford will get booed every time he fails this year. Chants will rise from the stands even before the first regular-season game, clamoring for the young quarterback. How will Bradford, who has never had to compete for his job, handle that adversity?

We already know the answer to that question. Bradford has made it known that he cannot prosper under that scrutiny, that pressure. It’s why he sought a trade in the first place.

The over-under in Vegas for games Carson Wentz will start in 2016 is 3½.

Bet the over.

Way over.

***

Sometime shortly after 8 p.m. on Tuesday, the future of the Sixers will finally come into focus. At the NBA draft lottery, the worst team in basketball will have a chance at four first-round picks, and the best part is, ex-GM Sam Hinkie won’t be around to screw them up this time.

The Sixers have a one-in-four shot at getting the top pick, and they are already assured of the 24th choice (from Miami) and the 26th (from Oklahoma City). If the Lakers don’t make it into the top three, the Sixers will also receive the LA pick. In short, Philadelphia has a good chance to end up with two picks at the top of the first round, and two at the bottom.

I know. I know. This proves Hinkie was a genius at manipulating the draft, a sage on how to stockpile picks and build a winner. But he wasn’t. All he was good at was trading the present for the future. When he mercifully resigned last month, the future finally became the present.

Under new GM Bryan Colangelo, the Sixers can build an actual team now. They can assemble a front court that blends the skills of the various players. They can add a point guard (Kris Dunn of Providence?) who can actually run the offense. For once, they might even find an outside shooter (Buddy Hield of Oklahoma?).

The consensus top two picks will be LSU power forward Ben Simmons and Duke small forward Brandon Ingram. Obviously, the Sixers could use either, though it will be a challenge to combine their talents with Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Dario Saric (maybe).

Sam Hinkie never really bothered with minor issues like how all the pieces fit together. He had only one thing on his mind, and that was acquiring assets. Colangelo is a far better bet at actually building a team.

It is inevitable now that Hinkie will become a martyr. The Sixers will be dramatically better next season; after 10 wins in 2015-16, how could they not be? The reclusive former GM will get all of the credit, and none of the blame, for what happens next with the franchise.

But what really matters is how Colangelo turns Hinkie’s assets into a winner. And that process begins on Tuesday night.

And finally …

     • Despite his poor start this year, Joey Votto of Cincinnati is a terrific baseball player. What he is not, however, is a comedian. His fake toss to the Phillies’ fans heckling him on Sunday was not smart, and his taunt to a child behind the third-base dugout was downright cruel. Obviously, Votto has forgotten what it was like to be a kid hoping to catch a souvenir at the ballpark.

     • In a season of surprises for the Phillies, the biggest shocker yet was the play that ended Saturday night’s game against the Reds. Tyler Goeddel unleashed a throw from mid-left field in the air to the plate, where Cameron Rupp caught it and tagged out Eugenio Suarez almost simultaneously. Amazing play. Amazing team.

     • Darin Ruf, who hit 38 home runs in Reading four years ago, was sent back to the minors last Friday, and let’s all hope that’s the last we see of him. I was once a supporter of the ex-Phillies first-baseman, but no more. At 29, he has had more than enough chances to prove he can hit big-league pitching. He can’t. Good riddance.

     • Chip Kelly announced last week that he had “a great interaction” with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and now everything is hunky-dory in San Francisco. Hey, maybe Kelly really did learn something from the disaster here. Maybe he figured out that it’s more productive to talk to your players than to ignore them. Who knows? Kelly might even show up at the team Christmas party this year.

     • North Dakota State is so enamored with Carson Wentz that they have made their ex-quarterback’s No. 11 Eagles jersey the hottest seller among rookies so far this month. In North Dakota, Wentz is the top sports hero. The runner-up is … who? Is there a runner-up?