Why the Phillies fired the manager, kept the front office and other takeaways from Friday's much-anticipated press conference

Why the Phillies fired the manager, kept the front office and other takeaways from Friday's much-anticipated press conference

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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Phillies touch base with agent Scott Boras on Mike Moustakas and free-agent pitchers

Phillies touch base with agent Scott Boras on Mike Moustakas and free-agent pitchers

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — Scott Boras, baseball’s most high-powered agent, has forged an undeniable chemistry with the Phillies and owner John Middleton, in particular, over the last two years. It started with the pursuit and eventual signing of Jake Arrieta before the 2018 season and reached a crescendo last winter when the club signed Bryce Harper to a staggering $330 million contract.

Boras will look to capitalize on that chemistry again this winter. The Phillies have needs and he has solutions.

On the pitching side, Boras represents several free-agent starters, including the two biggest stars on the market, Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. He also represents lefties Dallas Keuchel and Hyun-Jin Ryu, the majors’ ERA champ in 2019.

The Phillies, as documented, are very much in need of starting pitching.

They also could look to add a third baseman this winter as they allow top prospect Alec Bohm more development time and consider a possible move to another position for him. Boras represents two top free-agent third basemen, Anthony Rendon and Mike Moustakas.

It is likely that the Phils will look to spend the bulk of their free-agent budget on pitching — and it’s difficult to argue with that approach. That could leave the Phillies as interested bystanders in the Rendon sweepstakes as Rendon is seeking a lengthy, mega-dollar deal. The Phils will certainly monitor the market for Josh Donaldson, another free-agent third baseman, but the best fit in terms of dollars and years might be Moustakas, who has played the last two seasons in Milwaukee on one-year contracts.

According to multiple sources, Phillies officials touched base with Team Boras here at the general managers meetings this week and the two sides discussed a number of subjects — and not just pitching.

In other words, Moustakas is very much on the Phillies’ radar.

The Phillies' most pressing need remains starting pitching. Cole is the biggest name on the market. The Phillies will be in the hunt for him, though the Angels and Yankees may pull out all the stops to sign him to what could be a multi-year deal worth more than $250 million. Boras disclosed Wednesday that he recently had lunch with Angels owner Arte Moreno. He would not say if he’d recently broken bread with Middleton.

“Well," he said with a grin, "I’ll let John tell you about that."

Boras, as he typically does at the general managers meetings and winter meetings, which arrive next month, talked up his top clients in florid language.

“If this were major-league Christmas, we would be looking at 30 stockings that clearly wanted a lump of Cole,” he said, referring to his stud right-handed client. “I think starting pitching has become back in vogue. It’s an aggressive market.”

Boras employed an oceanic analogy when referencing Strasburg.

“In the oceans of the playoffs, the Strasburg sank many contending ships,” he said.

Strasburg, along with fellow ace Max Scherzer, helped the Washington Nationals win the World Series last month.

“There are general managers who I said four or five years ago to that, ‘You’re going to have a very hard time winning a world championship if you don’t sign this player.’ And I’m very happy to say that player was Max Scherzer,” Boras said. “I told that to three teams and they have not won and he did win.

“The reality of it is that those No. 1 kind of guys, those special arms, take you through the playoff seas. You have to have them because when it comes down to that, you end up throwing 70 percent of the innings (in the postseason) among three guys. 

“It all boils down to what’s important to (teams), what’s important to their ownership, what drive do they have to get to where they are really going to take risks. All of these things are risks in their minds. But that’s how you win. You take risks. You pay Max Scherzer $30 million a year when no one else would, and by doing that, you’ve been rewarded.”

Boras became convinced that Middleton wants to win after the Phillies signed Harper last winter. 

“I don’t see any stop sign in John’s pursuit of his goal and that’s a world championship,” Boras said. “He’s an owner that has been very straightforward about his path and his commitment. He’s very, very involved in the franchise and it’s really good to see owners really be that committed to their city, to their team. We should really have a dynamic where when people are that involved, they’re going to be as competitive as they feel they need to be to create the winning product they want.”

Boras said the economic value of Harper’s signing with the Phillies — i.e., branding, attendance, TV ratings, merchandise sales, etc. — “will pay the next two years of Harper’s contract.” Harper is more than just the Phillies’ right fielder. He is an influential voice in the organization and his will to win is as strong as the owner’s.

Would Harper, Boras’ mega client, push Phillies ownership to sign one of Boras’ big free-agent pitchers, or, perhaps, one of his third basemen?

“Knowing Bryce, I’m sure that he will be offering a lot of opinions about how to get better and what to do and I’m sure they are listening to him as well,” Boras said.

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Phillies move closer to hiring hitting coach, but could they lose staff to Gabe Kapler and Giants?

Phillies move closer to hiring hitting coach, but could they lose staff to Gabe Kapler and Giants?

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The Phillies are looking to have a hitting coach in place in the next week or so, according to general manager Matt Klentak.

The field of candidates has been thinned with veteran hitting coach Chili Davis returning to the New York Mets. By all indications, that leaves Joe Dillon and Matt Stairs as the two finalists for the Phillies’ job, though it’s not uncommon for late candidates to emerge. The Phillies interviewed both Dillon and Stairs last week and were in contact with Davis, as well. Dillon has been Washington’s assistant hitting coach the last two seasons. Stairs was the Phillies’ hitting coach in 2017 and the Padres’ hitting coach in 2018.

Dillon might be the favorite because of his close connection to Kevin Long, Washington’s hitting coach. Long was hitting coach with the Yankees during Joe Girardi’s time as manager of that club. Girardi, the Phillies' new manager, has great respect for Long’s work and Long has called Dillon the best assistant hitting coach in baseball.

“I think we’re looking for the best possible candidate to work with our guys, and obviously with a new manager it’s going to be important that the person is on the same page philosophically with Joe,” Klentak said of the hitting coach job. “We’re interviewing people with a variety of backgrounds, some of whom this would be their first time as a hitting coach and others that have done it for some time. We’re just looking for the best possible candidate. We’re not going in with a specific resume that someone has to have.”

At the moment, hitting coach is the only opening on the Phillies’ coaching staff. However, it would not be surprising if another spot were to open now that the San Francisco Giants have named Gabe Kapler manager. Kapler was fired as Phillies skipper last month and could seek to take a member or two of the Phillies’ holdover coaching staff with him. Potential departures could include first base/outfield coach Paco Figueroa, assistant hitting coach Pedro Guerrero, catching instructor Craig Driver or bullpen coach Jim Gott. All are under contract with the Phillies for 2020 but the club might let one or two of them go so Girardi could have more say in building his coaching staff. Girardi oversaw the hiring of pitching coach Bryan Price and, obviously, has much say on the hitting coach hire.

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