Andy MacPhail

Rob rants about Thursday NFL games, Andy MacPhail and Simmons-Fultz

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NBC Sports Philadelphia

Rob rants about Thursday NFL games, Andy MacPhail and Simmons-Fultz

With the Eagles off to a 4-1 start and sitting atop the NFC East, it would pretty tough to justify any rants thrown their way this week. So this will be an anti-Eagle edition of Rob's Rants. But that doesn't mean the NFL is off the hook.

Too soon
I love the NFL. Much to the chagrin of my family, I could and usually do watch it from 1 p.m. Sunday until whatever time the night game ends. Same goes for Monday Night Football. But I have never been a fan of the Thursday night games, for varying reasons. This week, our TNF antenna is up because the Eagles play in the game. It's actually a great matchup. A pair of 4-1 teams, both with exciting young quarterbacks, leading their conference and divisions. What's not to love? Here's what.

For starters, I'd like to be able to bask in the smackdown that was the win over the Cardinals. A full week of marinating in Carson Wentz's four-touchdown performance, the defense's impressive game and Kenjon Barner's returns would have been wonderful. Anyone who's been watching Eagles games for more than a decade knows they rarely win games comfortably, the kind of games you literally are not concerned about at all in the fourth quarter. Sunday was one of those non-white knuckles, agita-free kind of games that don't come along very often. Not to mention the high of a 4-1 start.

It would be nice to revel in that a few days longer before dealing with an equally hot Panthers team. One of the beauties of the NFL is the yin and yang element of its nature. You normally have six or seven days before the next one. That allows for a 3-4 day period of mourning or celebration from the previous game. Then it's time for the lookahead, which is the slow build to the next opponent. We all get to play coaches and coordinators as we break down whoever our team is taking on next. Playing once a week with that amount of time in between makes that league unique. The NFL, for all its faults, is the only league that has not hit a saturation point with its games. You can't find one or multiple games on every night like other in-season sports. Having a four-day turnaround kills the mid-week fun.

Safety
By its very nature, football should be played only once a week. The players need at least that amount of time to heal and recharge for the next contest. The league constantly preaches players safety. Protocols and more stringent rules have been put in place to protect the players. And the decision-makers deserve kudos. But don't try to tell me you're all about the welfare of your employees on the field and then ask them to play a violent, physical toll-taking game, four days later. You're not all about the good fortunes of the players, you're about the fortunes you're lining your pockets with. If you've seen any of these games, you know the performances are not up to standard. Players rightfully are tired and beat up from the game they played four days earlier. The product is usually bad.

Back to back
For the past two games, Eagles fans not in attendance or listening on the radio have been subjected to Dick Stockton and Chris Myers calling their games in consecutive weeks. This is cruel and unusual punishment. No fanbase should be forced to listen to this not-so-dynamic duo. Stockton was bad when I was a kid listening to him call the NBA and Sixers-Celtics playoff games. That was 30-something years ago. He has not improved with age. He has no feel for the moment and misses blatant plays throughout a game. Myers, who's also been around a long time as well, lacks any kind of juice, he's a cure for insomnia, and he shares Stockton's obliviousness when it comes to a big play or moment. The Eagles are too good to get the "Y" and "Z" broadcast teams. Stockton and Myers should make the Joe Buck haters reconsider their stances.

Andy MacPhail
Considering the team has one reliable starting pitcher heading into the 2018 season, I'm glad one of Phillies president Andy MacPhail's priorities is the P.A. system at Citizens Bank Park. I hear Dan Baker could project as a solid No. 2 if they can just get his sound straightened out. "Now starting for the Phillies, me."

Outside the paint
We're only three preseason games in but at some point, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz are going to have to be willing to shoot the ball from outside the lane. We knew going in this was going to be an issue with Simmons and the hope was he would improve his shot this offseason. So far, we don't know because he won't pull the trigger. Fultz shot the ball better than 41.0 percent from three in his lone year in college at Washington. But he decided to tinker with his shot after summer league for whatever reason and whether it's the new form or a sore shoulder, he appears hesitant. Again, we're not even out of the preseason, but something to keep your eye on.

MacPhail on Mackanin, new manager, pitch-framing, analytics, CBP renovations

MacPhail on Mackanin, new manager, pitch-framing, analytics, CBP renovations

Andy MacPhail sat in the Phillies' media room Tuesday and answered an assortment of questions pertaining to the dismissal of Pete Mackanin, the state of the rebuild, offseason plans and more.

Here are some of the more interesting tidbits from the 45-minute session:

2016 vs. 2017
"I think we did a reversal of what we did last year. We started out good (in 2016), we were playing .500 or better really up until June, got everybody excited early, and then we faltered at the end. This year we stunk in the beginning, we were decent in April and then we were bad for a long time, and then in the last 70 games, we were 35-35, playing .500. 

"Last year in the last 70 games we were 28-42, 14 games under .500. So there's an entirely different feel to the team. Our run differential last year was the worst in baseball at 186 runs. We've cut that in half to 92 and over the second half our run differential was zero, we were essentially a .500 club.

"We were the second youngest team in baseball. Effective [Aug. 31] when the rosters were still at 25, our average age of the roster was 27.03. Only the Padres were younger."

Phillies want to focus even more on analytics
"Our major-league analytics group is going to continue to grow. We've gone from one (person) to 14. I've been a career baseball guy, it's all I've known all my life. It is amazing to me what information can be generated now with the push of a button that I used to slave over for hours. It's incredible. They do the coding in that room and come up with stuff — some of which is proprietary and some of it is not — that to me is pretty remarkable. As we go along, we start to figure out things that say 'Gee, wouldn't it be nice to have that?' 

"All of it emanates from one thing, it emanates from ownership. They have come to us with one thing: seek competitive advantages. If you are not dedicating resources towards payroll, then put it towards finding every competitive advantage you can find and exercising your strength in a different way."

Front office unhappy with Phils catchers' pitch-framing
Specifically, MacPhail mentioned that the Phillies want to use analytics more to help correct an organization-wide problem with catcher framing.

"We don't think as an organization that our catchers' framing is very good. We think we are well-below-average. There are certain technologies that will help you instruct, teach, measure how well someone does that. We need to acquire those technologies to ensure that's an area that gets improved. We think that's an area that needs improvement, significantly. It's a hard thing. You want to take as much subjectivity out of it as you can. The player will likely learn better if he can see tangible results of things he does. Maybe this pitch you took out of the strike zone, maybe you stole one here. It's an ever-evolving thing. 

"There were stories written about (Jonathan) Lucroy, who went from being one of the very best framers one year to one of the very worst the next year. Well, that makes me suspicious. How does a guy go from one of the best to one of the worst overnight? It's something that we continually have to evaluate, keep our eyes on. But it's definitely an area of interest for the organization."

MacPhail told Klentak the Mackanin dismissal would confuse people
"Obviously, I talked to Matt when he came to me and talked about where he was. I probably spent more time with Matt talking to him about sort of the ramifications of his decision as anything. I told him that this is going to confuse people. You just extended the guy when we stunk four months ago and now we're getting better and you make a change. You're going to have to explain that. I also told him the media is going to be surprised by some of this. And my experience would tell me that media does not like to be surprised. They get pretty angry when they get surprised. Just make sure you're ready for that. 

"We also talked about — and you guys have already written it — that the GM only gets so many managers. If you make this move, you're going to increase the scrutiny on yourself. Are you prepared for that? He understood. He's unafraid. He feels like it was the appropriate time. 

"That was not an easy thing for Matt to do. He knew it was the young guy reassigning the old guy ... he understood that had he felt that way and not taken action, he essentially would not have been doing what his job requires him to do."

Remember when Chase Utley yelled at Bob McClure in Baltimore?
"Speaking for myself personally, just my own view, I always expected when we extended Pete that we were eventually going to pass the baton to another manager. Pete took over when the manager before (Ryne Sandberg) quit. The team hadn't really fully committed to a rebuild. They were half-committed. They hadn't gone all the way yet. Pete was in a tough spot. You think about it, and you'd just come off that awful game in Baltimore. You had Utley yelling at McClure and (Jeff) Francoeur pitching. It was pretty bad. Pete has taken us from that point to this point. He's taken us from A to B. If Matt thinks that, OK, I'm at this point, now to get to here, I need a different voice, that's up to Matt and I support his decision. He understands the consequences.

The timetable for naming a new manager
"I think ideally before you get to the GM meetings (early November) you'd like to have your manager in place. To help you kick off the sort of the official acquisition season. You want his input and you want him to be part of that."

Renovations coming to Citizens Bank Park
"We are the oldest park in the National League East, which is a bit of a surprise. So we plan on redoing the field next year. We're going to put in a new PA system. We're going to add new lighting. And then we're going to explore and add different security enhancements, which unfortunately at this day in age are required of us. ...
 
"Upgrades to the fan experience at Citizens Bank Park are essential. We think we have some very exciting things on the horizon. I can't be as detailed as I'd like to be because we haven't secured the necessary government approvals in some cases to do all the things we want. But while our payroll is not at an accustomed level that we've had in the past, then this is the time to make investments in the ballpark and in the fan experience and we hope to be, we're certainly going to do some of that for '18 and some of it in '19."

Phillies sound more likely to trade for starting pitchers than sign them

Phillies sound more likely to trade for starting pitchers than sign them

The Phillies went 35-35 in their final 70 games on the backs of a group of exciting young position players and an improved bullpen, so there's a growing perception that adding several starting pitchers to a rotation in shambles could inch the 2018 Phils closer to .500.

The Phillies, as of today, have just one starting pitcher they can feel good about heading into next season: Aaron Nola.

Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff had disappointing, injury-plagued seasons. Nick Pivetta showed flashes but also had the highest ERA in baseball at various points in September. Ben Lively had 10 quality starts in 15 tries, but when he was bad, he was really bad. 

There are some intriguing starting pitchers available in free agency this winter — Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb — but based on team president Andy MacPhail's comments Tuesday, it doesn't sound like the Phils will be spending for a starting pitcher in the first or even second tier this offseason.

"I would expect we’re going to have a relatively low payroll (in 2018)," MacPhail said. "I might be surprised. It’s [Matt Klentak's] job to stay open to other opportunities and if something comes up, we should jump on it."

The Phillies have just one player under contract in 2018: Odubel Herrera. After you account for all the arbitration raises and slight raises to players making close to the minimum, you get to a figure of about $30 million for a mostly-completed 25-man roster.

Now, "relatively low payroll" doesn't mean the Phils will stay at $30 million. Even if they increased it to, say, $75 million, that is still low relative to the rest of the league and certainly low compared to the $170 million or so they spent at the height of their contending phase.

But MacPhail doesn't sound like a man who wants the Phillies to pay for past performance.

"My philosophy hasn't changed," he said. "There are times when you're going to have to dive into that pool and just take a risk. But it's not my favorite place to be. 

"We get inundated with stories across the game about how everybody is looking for starting pitching. 'Just get two quality starters, and we'll be all set.' Well, you might as well look for a unicorn at the same time. It's tough. You don't want to be paying for past performance. That's often what you're confronted with — someone who has probably logged over 600 innings in the last three years and been a great pitcher and now we're on the wrong side of 30 and here we go."

There's a lot of merit to that last comment. In 2015, the Padres signed a 32-year-old James Shields to a four-year, $75 million contract. He had exceeded 200 innings in each of the prior eight seasons and put up No. 2 starter stats. 

What happened? All of those innings caught up to Shields, who lost velocity and has been a high-priced disaster for most of the contract, posting a 5.60 ERA in his last 54 starts. It's one of many, many, many recent examples.

You never want to be that team. You don't want to be the team that pays Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn — two consistent right-handers who've already had Tommy John surgery — $75 million to be lesser versions of themselves.

The more you read into MacPhail's comments Tuesday, the more likely it sounds that the Phillies trade for starting pitching rather than sign a few guys to deals averaging $15 million per year.

"This is as deep an organization that I’ve ever been associated with," MacPhail said of the Phils' farm system. "We don’t have some of the marquee names that other teams have but in terms of depth, I think we’re as good as there is in the game. ... 

"Is it possible that Matt uses those assets in the minor leagues to augment our major-league club in '18? I think the answer to that question is definitely we’d consider it. The minor leagues are there to populate your major-league club, and it can happen a couple different ways. They can come up and play or you can turn them in for what is more known assets. ...

"Most of you guys have written about how the '18 (free-agent) class is a little on the light side, all the big guns come out in '19. It may well be that teams that want to compete in that '19 arena shed some salary that we won't anticipate right now in '18. So we have to keep our eye out for that, as well."

The caliber of starting pitcher the Phillies can find on the trade market depends on who they're willing to move. Freddy Galvis, as impressive as he is defensively, will not bring back a good, young starting pitcher. Galvis just isn't enough of a difference-maker, and he's a free agent after 2018.

Cesar Hernandez? That should get some talks started. Hernandez has been remarkably consistent the last two seasons, hitting .294 with a .371 OBP in 2016 and .294 with a .373 OBP in 2017. There was trade interest in Hernandez last winter and there will be more this winter, with the Phillies likely listening more intently now that they know more about Scott Kingery and J.P. Crawford.

Packaging Hernandez — or Maikel Franco, for that matter — with a prospect like Dylan Cozens could net the Phillies a younger pitcher with comparable skills to Cobb or Lynn but without the hefty price tag.

If the Phils dangle players like Nick Williams or Aaron Altherr, the starting pitching return could be even more impressive. Fans wouldn't like it, but trading an outfielder for a starting pitcher of similar value and then replacing that outfielder in free agency could turn out better than just signing a pitcher.

Take this hypothetical: The Phillies trade a nice prospect package including Williams to Tampa Bay for Chris Archer, then sign J.D. Martinez to play right field. Isn't a Phillies team with Martinez and Archer better than a Phillies team with Williams and Cobb? I'm not saying I think that's the absolute best idea, but the Phillies are admittedly in a position to listen to any possibility that comes their way.

"We need to stay open-minded," MacPhail said. "But, philosophically, it's not where I — you heard me drone on in spring training about pitching, pitching, pitching. Young pitching is at such a premium today. You need such a volume of it. You should always be focused on that."

Notice the word "young" preceding pitching. In this free-agent class, injured Michael Pineda is the only starting pitcher of note younger than 30.