John Middleton

Another 'stupid money' winter? Phillies owner John Middleton talks about an important offseason

Another 'stupid money' winter? Phillies owner John Middleton talks about an important offseason

A year ago, John Middleton’s comment about spending stupid money became a mantra for the Phillies’ offseason.

Middleton made the comment to a reporter at Major League Baseball’s owners’ meetings and within a few hours it was everywhere, from headlines to T-shirts. Salivating player agents noticed the juicy remark and put Middleton on speed dial. Eventually, the Phillies did indeed spend stupid money, big money — whatever you want to call it. They lavished more than $400 million on free agents only to finish .500 and out of the playoff picture for an eighth straight season.

Baseball owners will assemble for their annual November meetings in Texas on Tuesday and Wednesday. Before departing Monday night, the Phillies managing partner was asked if he would be providing any memorable T-shirt material this time around.

“Mantras are a lot of fun,” Middleton said with a laugh. “But we just want to acquire players that will make us meaningfully better. All of our efforts this offseason will be geared toward that.”

Don’t mistake Middleton’s measured tone for complacency. He remains fiercely committed to finding a way to win. And he agrees with Matt Klentak, the Phillies’ usually guarded general manager, who recently proclaimed,“No questions asked, it is time to win right now.”

“I loved it,” Middleton said of his GM’s bold remark. “No argument here.”

But how are the Phillies going to transform from a fourth-place team to a playoff club? New manager Joe Girardi and good health from Andrew McCutchen — the Phillies missed him badly over the final four months of 2019 — and a few relievers can only do so much. This team needs starting pitching — big time — and there are several good to great ones on the free-agent market. 

“There are many places where we can add value and become more successful,” Middleton said. “One of those is certainly pitching, but we’ll explore all areas.”

The free-agent pitching market is led by Gerrit Cole. The power-armed right-hander is expected to fetch the largest contract ever for a pitcher, eclipsing David Price’s $217 million package. Stephen Strasburg, Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Cole Hamels, Rick Porcello and others are also on the market.

Last winter, Middleton’s promise to spend stupid money led to Bryce Harper, who signed what was briefly the largest contract in the history of the game — $330 million — until it was eclipsed by Mike Trout.

Money is still the Phillies’ best resource. Will they set records again this winter?

“Any time impact players are available who fill a need of ours, the Phillies need to be in the middle of those negotiations,” Middleton said. “At the same time, no team can sign the top free agent each off-season — it just isn’t a sustainable long-term strategy. We’ll explore ways to make our team better in both the trade and free-agent markets and make the additions that we feel best balance our needs.”

Given that the Phillies have a need for multiples of starting pitching, bullpen help and possibly a bat like Mike Moustakas at third base, it might behoove the club to spread around its resources and fill several holes.

The competition for Cole will be stiff with the Yankees and Angels both known to covet him. You just know that agent Scott Boras cannot wait to pit those two big-market clubs against each other in negotiations.

Boras also represents Strasburg and Ryu, as well as third basemen Moustakas and Anthony Rendon. 

Boras and Middleton got to know each other during the Phillies’ pursuit of Jake Arrieta two winters ago and built further chemistry during Harper’s Bazaar last winter. Could the relationship foster a deal?

“As is often the case in high-profile negotiations, Scott and I had our ups and downs last year,” Middleton said. “But we learned a lot about each other, and fortunately we landed in a great place. Matt will be at the point in all our major negotiations. I’m always available to him for support and assistance.”

Last week, Boras spoke about his relationship with Middleton and the Phillies owner’s commitment to winning.

“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.”

The owners’ meetings will mark Middleton’s first public appearance — at least in baseball circles — since the team’s October news conference to announce the firing of manager Gabe Kapler. Middleton was noticeably absent from the news conference to announce Girardi’s hiring later in the month. Klentak introduced Girardi and spoke for the organization.

“I didn’t think that it was appropriate for me to participate in the Girardi press conference because the ultimate decision to hire Joe was made by Matt,” Middleton said. “It was Matt’s job, therefore, to explain to our fans and the press the rationale supporting his decision.”

Long before his catchy “stupid money” comment, Middleton famously proclaimed that he wanted his “bleeping trophy back” after the Phillies, winners of the 2008 World Series, lost the 2009 World Series to the Yankees.

The Yankees manager that year?

Yep. Girardi.

“I was impressed with Joe’s leadership, experience and growth in his time with the Yankees,” Middleton said. “It’s obvious why he is a winner. His interview was an important part of the process, but we also placed immense value on the opinions of many players, coaches, and front office members who have been around Joe in his time as a manager, and the feedback we received from them was outstanding. 

“I certainly believe that he will instill in the clubhouse the drive, intensity, commitment and dedication that is necessary to bring the trophy back to Philadelphia.”

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Matt Klentak's 'Time to win' comment makes this a crucial offseason for Phillies and it begins this week

Matt Klentak's 'Time to win' comment makes this a crucial offseason for Phillies and it begins this week

Throw a log on the hot stove.

Major League Baseball general managers will assemble in Phoenix for their annual meetings on Monday. The event, which ends Thursday, serves as the de facto starting point of the offseason and this will be a busy one, locally and industry wide.

The free-agent market is led by three stars of the recently completed World Series — starting pitching studs Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg and hard-hitting third baseman Anthony Rendon. Strasburg and Rendon were part of the World Series champion Washington Nationals club and Cole starred for the American League champion Houston Astros. All three players are represented by super-agent Scott Boras, who a year ago used the general managers meetings as a pulpit to announce that “Harper’s Bazaar” had opened for business. Three and a half months later, Bryce Harper signed a mammoth, 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies.

Harper led the Phillies in OPS (.882), homers (35) and RBIs (114) in his first season with the club, but the Phils, who led the NL East at the end of May, faded in June and again in September to finish in fourth place in the National League East, 12 games behind the second-place (and wild card) Nationals and 16 behind the division-winning Atlanta Braves.

The Phillies have not had a winning season (they finished .500 in 2019) or made the playoffs since 2011 and impatience is raw from the fan base to the ownership level. Managing partner John Middleton ordered the ouster of manager Gabe Kapler, proven winner Joe Girardi is now at the helm and normally guarded general manager Matt Klentak is on record as saying, “No questions asked, it is time to win right now.” That statement makes this a crucial offseason for Klentak and the Phillies because this team must fill some serious holes if it is going to win right now.

The most glaring hole — or holes — reside in the starting rotation where the Phillies currently have just one dependable starting pitcher on their roster. After Aaron Nola, the Phils have reason to believe that a healthy Jake Arrieta (he had elbow surgery in September) and an inconsistent but promising Zach Eflin can contribute in 2020, but neither are a sure-thing and even if they make an impact, the Phils will need a lot more starting pitching than that, from the top of the rotation to the back end.

You can bet the Phils will be in on all the top arms on the free-agent market. Boras, who during Harper’s Bazaar built a chemistry with Middleton, will make sure of that. 

The Phillies will at least start the offseason in the sweepstakes for Cole and Strasburg and see where it takes them. Cole seems to have his eye on the West Coast and Strasburg could end up back in Washington, but the deep-pocketed Phils cannot be ruled out, especially this early in the offseason. The Phils will be in on other top starters such as Madison Bumgarner and Zack Wheeler. Signing any one of these four would require the Phillies to forfeit their second pick in the 2020 draft. The Phils, with a new scouting director (Brian Barber) and a need to add talent to their prospect pipeline, are not keen on losing high-round selections, but their need for starting pitching is so acute and their thirst to win so desperate that it would not be surprising to see them sacrifice a pick for an impact arm.

Given the lack of depth in the rotation, the Phillies will cast their net in the lower end of the free-agent pool, as well. Cole Hamels has long spoken of a desire to finish his career in Philadelphia. Rick Porcello and others could also boost the back end of the rotation.

As nice as Rendon’s bat would look at third base — where there is a need — the Phils probably have to allot the bulk of their financial resources on starting pitching, not to mention locking up catcher J.T. Realmuto to a contract extension. The Phils have been linked to third baseman Mike Moustakas, yet another Boras guy, the last two winters and this might be the time to try to grab him on a one- or two-year deal. He won’t cost nearly as much as Rendon and shouldn’t cost as much as free-agent Josh Donaldson, who is also expected to cost a draft pick after being extended a qualifying offer.

With Andrew McCutchen set in left field and Harper in right field, the Phils could pursue a short-term fit like Brett Gardner in center field, but they also could look to re-sign corner man Corey Dickerson, a good lefty stick, and try to get enough out of a McCutchen-Adam Haseley combination in center field. 

As for Odubel Herrera, it’s too early to tell if he will ever suit up for the Phillies again. The guess here is that he will not, but the Phillies still have several months to make that call. Only the need for a roster spot (the team currently has five openings) or the arrival of spring training will create urgency to make a decision on Herrera, if it already has not privately been made.

It’s kind of fitting that the GM meetings are being held in the Phoenix area. That is Scott Kingery’s hometown and he sits in the middle of this Phillies offseason. Depending on how the team maneuvers its way through the winter, Kingery could open the 2020 season at third base, shortstop, second base or center field. He could play third if the team does not bring in someone from the outside, shortstop if Cesar Hernandez moves on and Jean Segura moves to second base, as has been discussed internally, or second base if the team wants to play him at his best position. He also improved greatly in center field last season and could fill that spot, depending how this offseason shakes out.

There are many possibilities for this team that says it's time to win now.

Throw a log on the fire. The hot stove is warming. Baseball’s offseason gets chugging this week.

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Phillies' 11-year quest to reclaim World Series trophy leads them to Joe Girardi

Phillies' 11-year quest to reclaim World Series trophy leads them to Joe Girardi

Ten years ago, John Middleton walked into the quiet visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, patted Ryan Howard on the shoulder and uttered the words that have since become as much a part of him as his square jaw and large bank account.

“I want my (bleeping) trophy back,” Middleton told Howard.

Middleton’s quest to bring a World Series championship back to Philadelphia has led him back to that night a decade ago when the Phillies lost Game 6 of the 2009 World Series to the New York Yankees.

The Yankees’ manager that night was Joe Girardi.

Now he will be the Phillies’ manager.

Girardi will be christened as the 55th manager in Phillies history in a press conference Monday at 1 p.m. It's a three-year deal with a club option for 2023. Girardi replaces Gabe Kapler, who was fired earlier this month after two seasons on the job.

"I'm excited for this next chapter of my career," Girardi said in a statement released by the team. "The Phillies have a strong commitment to winning from the owners to the front office to the players to the fans. It's something that I've seen up close for the last 30 years of my baseball career. ... To have my name now associated with this great franchise is something that I couldn't be happier about."

The Phillies prioritized experience in succeeding Kapler, a first-time big-league manager. In fact, the Phils interviewed just three candidates for the job — Girardi, Buck Showalter and Dusty Baker — and all have extensive big-league managing experience on their resumes. 

From the beginning, Girardi, 55, was believed to have been the Phillies’ preferred candidate. He managed the Miami Marlins for one season and the Yankees for 10, winning the World Series in his second year with the club. Girardi’s ability to blend baseball’s new (analytics and data) and old (instincts and feel) schools made him attractive to the Phillies' front office and ownership group, the latter of which has spent millions building an analytics operation over the last few years.

MORE: Joe Girardi's journey to the Philadelphia Phillies

Showalter and Baker are both three-time winners of the manager of the year award. Neither was seen as having Girardi’s blend of old and new.

General manager Matt Klentak led the search for a new manager, but it was made clear that his superiors, including Middleton, the team’s managing partner, would have to sign off on the hire. Middleton, according to sources, began thinking about Girardi as a potential Phillies manager back in July when he first started to contemplate dismissing Kapler.

“I don’t think there’s a relationship more important in a baseball organization than the manager and GM,” club president Andy MacPhail said at the news conference announcing Kapler’s firing. “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.”

Girardi, a former catcher, is an Illinois native who went to college near Chicago (he’s a Northwestern grad) and made it to the majors with the Cubs. He spent four years with the Cubs, went to Colorado in the expansion draft and was traded to the Yankees in November 1995. He was behind the plate the following October when the Yankees beat the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 to win the 1996 World Series. Girardi went on to win two other World Series as a player with the Yankees.

Girardi began his managing career with the Florida Marlins in 2006. He was fired after clashing with owner Jeffrey Loria. In 2008, Girardi succeeded Joe Torre as Yankees manager. He led the Yankees to their 27th World Series title a year later, beating the Phillies in six games.

Girardi’s 2017 team lost in the American League Championship Series and he was later fired. After a decade on the job, it was time for a change. Girardi’s relationship with general manager Brian Cashman had become strained. There were reports at the time that Girardi had begun to push back over what he saw as the overuse of analytics — he favored a blend — and he was criticized for his handling of some young players.

None of this stopped Girardi from being a hot managerial candidate this fall. He also interviewed with the Cubs and Mets for their open jobs.

In Philadelphia, Girardi will be reunited with Rob Thomson, his former Yankees bench coach who now fills the same role with the Phillies. Girardi’s first order of business will be hiring a pitching coach and hitting coach. Both jobs are open.

One name to watch for Phillies pitching coach: Larry Rothschild, Girardi's former pitching coach with the Yankees. Rothschild has a year left on his Yankees deal but they could make changes on their staff.

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