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.