Gabe Kapler’s firing as Phillies manager was not a sudden move.
Owner John Middleton began thinking about it back in July.
At the time, he was met with resistance from club president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak.
The season plodded on.
By late September, Middleton was doing more than thinking about firing Kapler.
“John had become an advocate for change,” MacPhail said.
Even with their boss ready to make a move, MacPhail and Klentak urged Middleton to spend some time gathering information before he pulled the trigger.
“We thought that he needed more points of view before reaching that decision, and he accepted our request,” MacPhail said.
The Phillies season ended without a playoff berth for the eighth straight year and 11 days later the club announced on Thursday that Kapler had been let go.
On Friday, the principals involved in the decision — Middleton, MacPhail and Klentak — appeared together in a nearly hourlong news conference at Citizens Bank Park.
More than 7,000 words were spoken. That’s a little too much to digest in one sitting. So here are a few takeaways from the news conference.
This was Middleton’s call all the way
The owner acknowledged a difference of opinion on Kapler between him and the front office. He invoked his rights as CEO.
“When you get towards an impasse on those kinds of decisions, the CEO not only has the authority to step in, the CEO has the responsibility and the obligation to step in,” Middleton said. “They understood my concerns. They understood my issues”.
What was his tipping point?
Middleton confirmed that he spoke with many people in his lengthy review of Kapler. He would not divulge who he spoke with because he promised privacy to them, but it’s clear he consulted members of the organization from the clubhouse (read: players) on up. He would not divulge specifics, but sources say he had serious concerns about Kapler’s no-rules leadership style and a lack of structure in the clubhouse. During the press conference, Middleton admitted that he spoke to Kapler in July about some instances where players did not hustle.
In the end, Middleton admitted that he “kept bumping up against” two September collapses. The Phillies were a combined 20-36 (fourth-worst in MLB) in that month in two seasons under Kapler.
Did public opinion of Kapler figure into his decision?
Of course, it did. Successful businessmen don’t become successful businessmen without paying attention to their customers. But Middleton said he encountered just as many folks who wanted to keep Kapler as move on from him. In the end, however, Kapler always seemed like an uncomfortable fit in Philadelphia. Even the man who hired him admitted that.
“Kap had a hard time gaining acceptance, and I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t know,” Klentak said.
Surely that affected things.
Why did Klentak and MacPhail survive?
This is certainly an arguable point, especially when you look at the underwhelming state of the team’s minor-league system and the lack of quality starting pitching at the big-league level, but Middleton said he has seen advances in the organization that have yet to show in the win-loss record.
“You tell me what part of this organization isn’t better today, and really substantially better today, than it was four years ago when they came?” Middleton said.
In other words, Middleton still trusts MacPhail and Klentak to run baseball operations. But the boss has clearly entered the decision-making mix, having made the call to go all-out on Bryce Harper and dismiss Kapler.
“Nobody bats 1.000 in hiring decisions,” said Middleton, referring to Klentak’s hiring of Kapler two years ago. “I haven't in my career. It's early in (Klentak's) career, but I would also point out he's made lots and lots of really good hiring decisions, too. I think what this should be is a learning experience, candidly. What's happened in other businesses we've run and gotten into this kind of situation, people learn from it. It gives me a chance to express my view about standards and the processes and making tough decisions and people generally learn from that.”
Klentak will get a chance to redeem himself by hiring the next manager
Ah, but he’ll have help.
“I don’t think there’s a relationship more important in a baseball organization than the manager and GM,” MacPhail said. “If those two aren’t simpatico, you really have issues. I believe it’s John’s and my goal that Matt go out and start the search. At the end, he’s going to have to have the approval of John and I, just like with Gabe. John or I could have vetoed Gabe; we chose not to. But I can’t imagine us hiring somebody that Matt is not fully on board with. John and I will have some influence on whether the guys that fit that criteria who we think might be the best fit, but it’s got to emanate from the GM.”
The next manager
It’s likely the Phillies will look for someone experienced, someone who can be the boss of the players, not their BFF. Joe Girardi is a name that’s getting a lot of buzz. Buck Showalter, too. Middleton said the team had not yet arrived at the profile it was seeking.
“I think any time you're in this position, you should be looking to do everything you can to make sure you make the best decision,” Middleton said. “And you should start, if you have people who are proven managers, you should kind of absolutely include them on your list. But, look, somewhere out there there's the next Craig Counsell, and you need to look for that, too.”
The new manager will have significant say on hiring the new hitting and pitching coaches.
Analytics are here to stay
Ideally, the Phillies will find a manager who can blend the use of analytics with instinct and feel when running a game and a team.
Analytics remain a polarizing issue in the sport, especially in Philadelphia, where old-school ways reigned until just recently when Middleton emerged as the leader of the organization. But analytics are here to stay. The owner is a believer. The GM is a devotee.
“I think to be a forward-thinking organization you have to be willing to take risks (with analytics) and I think that is tougher in this market than it is just about anywhere else. I know that,” Klentak said. “But if we want to do what John has asked us to do, which is to continue to push forward and be a great organization, and compete year in and year out with the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros, we have to be willing to continue to push the envelope at times. We will recognize the realities of our market, but we have to continue to push."
Another big free-agent winter?
Middleton said he expects the team to contend next season. It will need more talent — especially on that little hump in the middle of the field.
Will the Phils be big players in free agency, like they were last winter? Sources have said they will be busy again, though Middleton cautioned that the market is not yet set because some teams will look to retain their free agents during exclusive negotiating periods.
The luxury tax threshold will be at $208 million next season. The Phillies were about $20 million under that this season. Would Middleton go over that figure?
“Here’s what I’m not going to do,” he said. “I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second wild-card team. That’s not going to happen. I think you go over the luxury tax when you’re fighting for the World Series. If you have to sign Cliff Lee and that puts you over the tax, you do it. If you have to trade for Roy Halladay and sign him to an extension and that puts you over the tax, you do it. But you don’t do it for a little gain.”
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