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' pitching plans with Spencer Howard ready to put heat on Vince Velasquez

Phillies' pitching plans with Spencer Howard ready to put heat on Vince Velasquez

The Phillies made a slight adjustment to their pitching rotation after Friday night's rainout.

Jake Arrieta will stay on his regular fifth day and pitch Saturday night in what now is the first game of a four-game series against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park.

Vince Velasquez, who had been scheduled to start Friday night, will move back and start one of the games in Sunday afternoon's doubleheader. Top prospect Spencer Howard is expected to make his major-league debut in the other game Sunday.

"I'm not ready to make an official announcement until tomorrow, but if nothing changes, you can expect it to be Spencer Howard," Phillies manager Joe Girardi said Saturday afternoon.

It wasn't immediately clear why the Phillies flip-flopped Arrieta and Velasquez. The Braves simply moved Friday night's scheduled starter, Kyle Wright, back a day after the rainout. 

The game was called 45 minutes before first pitch and it's possible that Velasquez had already started his pre-game stretching in the clubhouse or training room. Maybe the Phillies wanted to give him a day to reboot before he went through the routine again. Maybe it's possible that they wanted to sync up he and Howard and get them on the same day to facilitate the option of having Howard take over that spot in the rotation. Or maybe it's possible that the Phillies simply decided that Velasquez, who would have gone 11 days between starts had he pitched on Friday, could handle a couple more days. Long periods between starts can hurt a pitcher's effectiveness. With Arrieta pitching Saturday night, the Phils now have the chance to get four of their five starters on a five-day schedule.

Arrieta made his first start in nearly a year Monday night at Yankee Stadium. He pitched five innings and allowed three runs, two on a pair of homers. Arrieta walked none and struck out four. The right-hander believed the start was something to build on. Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin also turned in starts that ranged from promising to excellent this week so the rotation is at least showing some signs of coming together.

Velasquez remains a different story. The enigmatic right-hander made a terrific showing in summer camp then blew a 4-0 lead in his first start on July 26 and lasted just three innings in a loss to Miami.

On the surface, especially with Howard coming, the leash does not appear to be very long on Velasquez. But, remember this: After Sunday's doubleheader, the Phillies still have five more doubleheaders to play before the 60-game schedule is complete so they're going to need at least six starters for a good chunk of the rest of the season. It would greatly behoove the Phillies if Velasquez and Howard were capable of delivering quality starts.

Friday night's quick postponement caused consternation with some fans who were looking forward to cracking a brew, lighting a cigar and watching the Phils. In ordinary times, Major League Baseball and the Phillies would have waited out the rain and started the game late. But COVID-19 protocols called for a quick postponement. For reasons of social distancing, MLB does not want large groups of players and staff congregating in clubhouses and dugouts for long periods of time. So the game was postponed quickly and everyone was sent home.

MLB's sensitivity to avoiding long rain delays became heightened last week when Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo took to Twitter to chastise the Cincinnati Reds for having a long delay before a game that was eventually postponed.

Sunday's doubleheader will be seven innings. That's also part of the COVID protocol. At the moment, 14 of the Phillies' 60 games (23 percent) will come in doubleheaders.

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Phillies schedule: Phils-Braves postponed because of inclement weather, doubleheader Sunday

Phillies schedule: Phils-Braves postponed because of inclement weather, doubleheader Sunday

Friday night's series opener between the Phillies and Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park has been rained out.

It was a "quick bang" as they say in the baseball business, no waiting around for the bad weather to clear out. That's part of the health and safety protocol for the COVID-impacted 2020 season. Major League Baseball does not want players and staff sitting around for long periods of time in enclosed areas like a clubhouse.

The postponement will be made up as part of a doubleheader Sunday afternoon at 1:05 p.m. Game 2 begins 40 minutes after Game 1 ends. The Phillies have 53 games remaining on their schedule and six of them will be played as part of doubleheaders. They already played a doubleheader Wednesday night, splitting with the New York Yankees.

Jake Arrieta will start for the Phillies Saturday against the Braves. Vince Velasquez will start one of the games of the doubleheader Sunday. The starter for the other game is still TBA. The Phils could promote prospect Spencer Howard to make the start. More on that as it becomes available.

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