Phillies

Phillies owner John Middleton's inquisition almost complete — will he sack Gabe Kapler or will Phillies skipper break free?

Phillies owner John Middleton's inquisition almost complete — will he sack Gabe Kapler or will Phillies skipper break free?

John Middleton continues to walk the fine line between due diligence and indecision.

The Phillies' season has been over for more than a week now and still the team’s managing partner has not rendered his verdict on whether Gabe Kapler will return for a third season as manager or be let go.

Seven other clubs have made decisions to move on from their managers and others have decided to keep the status quo.

That’s a lot of decision making.

Meanwhile, Middleton’s inquisition plods on.

And make no mistake. It is very much Middleton’s inquisition. He started asking critical questions about his baseball team and its leadership back in July, at Hall of Fame weekend in Cooperstown. In recent weeks, he’s continued to dig in deeply on the matter, inside and outside the organization, from the clubhouse level — where Bryce Harper said he would always be available to chat with the owner if asked — to the executive level. The answers have left him focusing squarely on Kapler, though another season of mediocrity and disappointment like this last one will have him focusing higher up the organizational chain next year.

If Middleton’s investigation of Kapler’s worthiness of another season leading the Phillies' on-field ops were a football field, it would be in the red zone because a decision is expected any time now — maybe later on Monday, Tuesday feels like a realistic target, Wednesday at the latest. Philadelphia sports fans saw 10 sacks at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday afternoon. Will they see one more across the street at Citizens Bank Park this week?

There are a number of ways to interpret the unusual length of this drama. When the season ended eight days ago, it seemed almost a fait accompli, at least from the outside, that Kapler would be let go. But the longer this thing has gone on, the more it feels like Middleton has heard some things that might prompt him to at least consider sticking with Kapler.

On the other hand, however, maybe the delay is simply Middleton being Middleton. He is a thorough, meticulous planner and detail master, a methodical decision maker who’ll make that one extra phone call, have that one extra conversation, seek out that one last opinion to make the best call he can for his team. Maybe what looks like dithering is not dithering at all. Maybe he’s just doing things his way because, after all, this is his team, and this is his decision.

That last point is important.

This is his decision.

General manager Matt Klentak does not want to let Kapler go. Why would he? Kapler was his signature hire and to fire him would be to put his own backside on the front griddle, and to replace him with someone like Joe Girardi or Buck Showalter would cost him some of the authority he had over the manager’s position.

It’s not clear where club president Andy MacPhail stands on Kapler. He’s always seemed to be somewhere in the gray middle, but then again, he’s always given his man, Klentak, the autonomy to run baseball ops the way he sees fit — until moments like these when ownership steps in.

All of this brings up an interesting question that has arisen in light of Middleton’s great inquisition.

Does he really trust the people that he has in charge? 

Middleton's actions suggest that maybe he doesn't. He pushed to have hitting coach John Mallee replaced in August with his personal recruit, Charlie Manuel. The hiring and firing of a manager falls under the responsibility of a general manager and when it doesn’t, well, it’s time for a new general manager. Middleton’s actions these last eight days (and even before that) have dulled Klentak’s authority and created the public perception that the owner does not have complete faith in his baseball ops people. Middleton will someday soon have to address this perception/reality. Klentak and MacPhail will also be asked about it.

As all this goes on, Kapler remains on trial, his fate twisting uncomfortably in the wind. In some circles, he’s not even Gabe Kapler anymore, he is simply “he” — as in, “Yo, is he staying or going?” You hear the question everywhere, from Wawa to the dentist office.

Kapler is not in the dark in this thing. He spent the first week of the offseason in and out of the ballpark. He’s met with Middleton, who has surely been up front with the skipper about what he likes and doesn’t like about his two seasons on the job. Kapler, under contract through next season, is eager to see this job through. He made that clear in his emotional news conference after the last game of the season. His leadership of the club has been called into question not only by the public but by the owner’s actions, as well. In fact, after all this, it’s reasonable to wonder if Kapler can ever recover and succeed in Philadelphia. Have a four-game losing streak in April and the whole town will be shouting, “See, you should have made the move in October!” Heck, it might happen sooner than that, like after a March loss in Dunedin.

One thing we’ve learned about Kapler in his two years here is that he is thick-skinned. He takes a licking and keeps on ticking, upbeat and laser-focused on the step right in front of him.

Maybe he’ll get a chance to continue his growth as a big-league manager next year, to fix the things that need to be fixed.

Or maybe he’ll be another South Philadelphia sack.

It’s John Middleton’s call and we’ll soon find out.

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Phillies to sign Matt Szczur, according to sources

Phillies to sign Matt Szczur, according to sources

The Phillies are about to sign a player with a resume chock-full of impressive — and important — accomplishments.

According to sources, Matt Szczur, the 30-year-old outfielder from South Jersey, has agreed to sign a minor-league contract with the Phils. The deal will include an invite to major-league spring training camp.

Szczur — pronounced SEE-zur — has spent parts of five seasons in the majors with the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres. He is a product of Lower Cape May Regional High School and Villanova University. He was a two-sport star at Villanova.

On the football field, Szczur was a dynamic receiver and return specialist for Villanova’s 2009 NCAA FCS national championship team. He racked up 270 all-purpose yards in the title game win over Montana and was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player.

On the baseball field, Szczur was an all-Big East player and a fifth-round draft pick of the Cubs in 2010. He played in 107 games for the Cubs team that won the World Series in 2016.

Szczur’s accomplishments extend beyond the playing field.

Off the field, he did something extraordinary when he took time off from his junior year baseball season at Villanova in 2010 to donate bone marrow that ultimately helped save the life of a young girl from Ukraine who had battled leukemia. Szczur’s life-saving gift started with his involvement in the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation. Talley was Szczur’s football coach at Villanova. Szczur has subsequently started his own charitable enterprise, the Szcz The Day Foundation.

Szczur hit .259 with five homers and 24 RBIs in 185 at-bats for the World Series champion Cubs in 2016. He was traded to San Diego in 2017. He spent parts of that season and the 2018 season in the majors with that club. He signed a minor-league deal with Arizona last season and hit .322 with eight homers, 28 RBIs and a .967 OPS in 44 games at Triple A Reno. His season was shortened by a quad injury.

The Phillies are set at the corner outfield spots with Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper and Adam Haseley is going to get a chance to hold down the center field spot with Roman Quinn in the picture as well. Szczur will give the Phillies some outfield depth and his ability to play center field is a plus. He is an excellent defender at all three outfield positions and could push for a spot on the big club as active rosters will expand from 25 to 26 men in 2020.

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Winter meetings complete, what’s next for Phillies?

Winter meetings complete, what’s next for Phillies?

SAN DIEGO — A year ago, Phillies officials left the winter meetings with much of their offseason work still in front of them.
 
Manny Machado was still a front-burner free-agent item. Bryce Harper was still in the background and J.T. Realmuto was headed to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York … anywhere but Philadelphia.
 
You know the rest of the story.
 
Spring training had already begun by the time the Phillies settled their offseason last year. A year later, Phillies officials departed the winter meetings on Thursday with their heavy offseason lifting complete.

The Phils signed free-agent pitcher Zack Wheeler to a five-year, $118 million contract last week and free-agent shortstop Didi Gregorius to a one-year, $14 million deal at the meetings this week. The signings left the Phils about $5 million under the $208 million luxury-tax threshold for the coming season and the club will be mindful of that. It’s likely — though not certain — that any further moves the Phillies make will qualify as tweaks.
 
Here are a few things to keep an eye on over the remainder of the offseason.

The starting rotation

Aaron Nola and Wheeler give the Phillies a “1 and a 1-A,” as manager Joe Girardi said.

Jake Arrieta is healthy and will be ready to go Day 1 of camp and Zach Eflin will hold down a job. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez are slated to battle for the fifth job, though it would not be surprising to see the Phils bring back Drew Smyly on a minor-league deal to join the fight. The Phils were keeping an eye on Rick Porcello to see where his market was headed, but he signed for one year and $10 million with the Mets. Lefty Wade Miley could be someone to keep an eye on, depending where his market goes. The Phils are committed to having top prospect Spencer Howard start the season in Triple A, but he could have a major impact as the season goes on. The Phils will watch Howard’s workload — because of injury, he pitched under 100 innings last year — so adding bargain depth is a must.

The bullpen

At the moment, it looks like a fairly unchanged unit. The Phils are banking on Adam Morgan and Seranthony Dominguez being healthy again and Hector Neris, Jose Alvarez and Ranger Suarez carrying a heavy load again. Pivetta, Velasquez or both could be used in the ‘pen, depending on the depth that is added in the rotation. If the Phils want to push the tax, they could make a play for former Yankee Dellin Betances. Someone from the system like Garrett Cleavinger or Connor Brogdon could surprise in spring training. How about Tommy Hunter? The Phils put a lot of time into his rehab after elbow surgery last year. Could he be a fit on a bargain deal? Ditto for Jared Hughes and Mike Morin.

The bench

Former All-Star and .300 hitter Josh Harrison has been signed on a minor-league deal. He can play anywhere and figures to have a good chance to make the club. Phil Gosselin, another jack of all trades, is coming back on a minor-league deal and the team has shown some interest in free agent Matt Szczur. Brad Miller remains a free agent and a potentially good fit. Jay Bruce will add power off the bench. Andrew Knapp returns as backup catcher but it would not be surprising to see the Phils sign one or two more veteran catchers to push for work and add depth. Remember, Girardi has said he’d like to keep Realmuto to between 120 and 130 games so he is fresh in October. “That’s where the prize is,” Girardi said. Austin Romine would have been a nice fit, but he signed with Detroit. 

Trades

While it appears as if most of the team’s major moves are done, general manager Matt Klentak and his group will continue to stay engaged on the trade front and you never know if one could materialize. Nick Williams could be dealt. Miami has long liked him. Velasquez could be dealt for some salary relief, particularly if the Phils are able to add starting pitching depth. The Phils would surely listen on Jean Segura, but he has three years and $45 million left on his deal so that would not be easy.
 
Could the Phils make a major trade?
 
After seeing the Realmuto deal come together so quickly last February, it can’t be ruled out. Even something crazy is possible. By crazy we mean Kris Bryant. Yes, he’d be a nice fit as the Phils make a quick push at a title before he becomes a free agent. But it’s a real long shot and it would probably cost top prospect Alec Bohm, and it would definitely push the Phillies over the luxury tax threshold, though managing partner John Middleton has said he would go over it for the right championship-caliber opportunity. Maybe that’s Bryant. There will continue to be buzz about him and the Phillies will continue to be connected to him as long as there is.
 
J.A. Happ could be another guy to watch on the trade front. The Phils made him an offer last winter and he signed with the Yankees. The Yanks are now eager to move his $17 million salary and might attach a good prospect to the package to help make the deal. Happ would put the Phillies over the tax, but, given the Phils’ need for more pitching, it might it be worth rolling the dice on the left-hander having a bounce-back year if and only if the Yanks attach a good prospect or two to the deal. 

What about Herrera?

The end of the winter meetings begins to put spring training in focus and the Phillies have a big decision to make before then: Do they bring Odubel Herrera to camp? Do they release him? The Phils would eat most of his salary to trade him, but there has been no interest.
 
We dealt with the Herrera situation more deeply in this story.

Realmuto's extension

Sometime before spring training, the Phils are expected to pursue a contract extension with Realmuto.

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