Don’t just blame Kapler

If he’s fired af­ter high ex­pec­ta­tions, front of­fice’s strat­egy should be ad­dressed

The Morning Call - - SPORTS - By Scott Lauber

Within the next few days, if not hours, the Phillies will de­cide Gabe Kapler’s fate. If they fire the man­ager with one year left on his con­tract, it will be be­cause he didn’t lead a team with a $156 mil­lion pay­roll to the play­offs.

Fair enough.

It’s a bot­tom-line busi­ness, af­ter all, and the bot­tom line is this: Af­ter own­er­ship spent nearly half a bil­lion dol­lars on ros­ter im­prove­ments in the off­sea­son, the Phillies fin­ished 81-81. There are sev­eral rea­sons for that, in­clud­ing a wicked spate of in­juries that wiped out al­most the en­tire bullpen. Still, a .500 record wasn’t good enough. There should be a reck­on­ing. In all like­li­hood, there will be.

But be­fore Kapler gets run out of town, as some within the game are spec­u­lat­ing, let’s flash back to July 12. The Phillies were 47-43 and held a half-game lead for the Na­tional League’s se­cond wild-card berth. But club pres­i­dent Andy MacPhail sat in the dugout be­fore the first game back from the All-Star break and de­clared that the team wasn’t in po­si­tion to make a bold ad­di­tion be­fore the trade dead­line. Gen­eral man­ager Matt Klen­tak sec­onded that no­tion roughly 10 days later.

OK, but what about the Phillies’ mis­sion, laid out by MacPhail him­self, to make the play­offs only four years af­ter los­ing 99 games and em­bark­ing on a full-scale re­build­ing process?

“If we don’t, we don’t,” said MacPhail, de­liv­er­ing a sound bite that has been played over and over.

To be fair, it was part of a larger an­swer about the Phillies’ re­luc­tance to part with any of their top prospects — chiefly third base­man Alec Bohm, pitcher Spencer Howard, and out­field­ers Adam Hase­ley and Mickey Mo­niak — as part of a push to play in one wild-card game with the chance to face the pow­er­house Los An­ge­les Dodgers in a five-game di­vi­sional-round se­ries. At best, though, MacPhail was inart­ful. At worst, he set a pitch-poor tone for the rest of the sea­son.

When MacPhail made his in­fa­mous com­ment, the Phillies had a 25.9% chance of reach­ing the play­offs, ac­cord­ing to Fangraphs. Af­ter Klen­tak picked up other teams’ garbage (re­liev­ers Mike Morin, Blake Parker, Nick Vin­cent and Jared Hughes, lefty Drew Smyly, bench pieces Lo­gan Mor­ri­son and Jose Pirela on mi­nor-league deals, and a trade with the New York Mets for lefty Ja­son Var­gas), their play­off odds were 23 per­cent.

Not ex­actly nee­dle-mov­ing ad­di­tions.

Re­gard­less, ma­jor­ity part­ner John Mid­dle­ton en­dorsed management’s con­ser­va­tive trad­edead­line plan. He co-signed the front of­fice’s de­ci­sion to take the long view rather than mort­gag­ing a po­ten­tial piece of the fu­ture for a shot at one guar­an­teed post­sea­son game.

Two months later, though, Kapler might lose his job over a 2019 play­off miss. Seems in­con­gru­ous, no?

“I love work­ing with this front of­fice,” Kapler said Sun­day af­ter Game 162, a 4-3 loss to the league-worst Mi­ami Mar­lins that kept the Phillies from fin­ish­ing with a win­ning record for the first time since 2011. “They give me all sorts of au­ton­omy. I have felt sup­ported by our own­er­ship group. Our own­er­ship group has done ev­ery­thing in their power to put a win­ning prod­uct on the field. I’m proud to be a Philadel­phia Phillie and will do it as long as I’m able.”

Good for Kapler for tak­ing the high road. He con­tin­ues to in­sist, too, that he hasn’t wor­ried about his fu­ture. Not when there were games to be played, even mean­ing­less ones to the wild-card chase.

But now that the sea­son is fi­nally over, Kapler fig­ures to meet with Mid­dle­ton, MacPhail, and Klen­tak and re­ceive clar­ity on his sit­u­a­tion. If he gets a pink slip, ques­tions will need to be asked about why the ex­pec­ta­tions for the man­ager’s per­for­mance in 2019 were so much higher than the high­erups.

Maybe the Phillies sim­ply be­lieve they can do bet­ter in the man­ager’s of­fice. Joe Mad­don be­came a free agent Sun­day when the Chicago Cubs an­nounced he won’t re­turn. A na­tive of Hazleton, Mad­don has skip­pered eight teams to the post­sea­son in the last 12 years and won a World Se­ries in 2016. He also made $5 mil­lion this year and will seek sim­i­lar com­pen­sa­tion in his next job.

Buck Showal­ter sat out this sea­son af­ter nine years at the helm of the Ori­oles. If the 63-year-old wants to get back in the game, he worked with MacPhail and Klen­tak in Bal­ti­more and would com­mand re­spect from a 20-year man­age­rial ca­reer.

Mean­while, Kapler re­ceived a few no­table en­dorse­ments as the play­ers packed their bags Sun­day.

“We feel like he’s done a great job for us,” J.T. Real­muto said. “He gets the guys to play hard. We all love play­ing for him. He’s been our man­ager all year and no­body’s had any­thing to say about it. We’ve ob­vi­ously had a rough last cou­ple of weeks and fell out of contention. For me, Gabe’s our man­ager. He’s a guy that this club­house re­ally re­spects.”

Said Bryce Harper: “It hasn’t been his fault. He’s had some tough de­ci­sions he had to make, bullpen-wise, lineup-wise. I love our staff. I en­joy play­ing for our staff. They’ve made me bet­ter each day and I ap­pre­ci­ate that.”

Most fans don’t agree. Kapler is of­ten crit­i­cized, even ridiculed, for his data-driven de­ci­sions and Tony Rob­bins-style ora­tions in the me­dia. In the ninth in­ning Sun­day, a sign was un­furled be­hind the third-base dugout that read, “An­a­lyt­ics say fire Kapler.”

Any day now, the fans might get their wish.

Maybe then MacPhail and Klen­tak will start be­ing judged with the same sense of ur­gency.

PAUL SANCYA/AP

De­spite a $156 mil­lion pay­roll, Gabe Kapler’s Phillies failed to make the play­offs.

MATT SLOCUM/AP

A Phillies fan makes his feel­ings about man­ager Gabe Kapler clear dur­ing a win over the Mar­lins last Fri­day at Cit­i­zens Bank Park.

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