The past couple weeks have seemed relatively encouraging for the Philadelphia Phillies.
This past Sunday, four Phillies pitchers combined to throw a no-hitter against the Braves. On Tuesday, the team’s top prospect, Maikel Franco, made his major league debut. That was followed on Wednesday by Cuban pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez pitching in his first big league game.
August was the first month this season in which the Phillies finished with a winning record, going 14-13. The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Matt Gelb pointed out that the team is 10-4 since Aug. 18, the best record in the NL from that point. (That date seems completely arbitrary, but the Phillies haven’t lost two consecutive games since Aug. 17, which is why I’m guessing Gelb chose it.)
Center fielder Ben Revere currently leads the NL with a .314 average. If he can stay on top of the leaderboard, he’ll win the Phillies’ first batting title since Richie Ashburn did so in 1958. (Ashburn batted .350 that year.) Revere’s average would be the lowest for a NL batting champion since Tony Gwynn hit .313 in 1988. But hey, trophies stand forever — or something like that.
OK, those developments probably aren’t very exciting if you’re a Phillies fan. The Fightins are still in last place, though are close enough to the Mets and Marlins in the NL East to possibly leapfrog those two clubs by the end of the season. But looking ahead to the future, it doesn’t appear that the Phillies will clear that third-place hurdle in the next couple of seasons. The Nationals look like a powerhouse. The Braves could slide, but still have significant talent. The Marlins are on the upswing. The Mets have some promising young pitching.
Where the Phillies fit in that picture isn’t exactly clear. As has been the case for the past two seasons (and perhaps further back than that), the roster is saddled with several aging players whose skills are in decline. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has either been unwilling or unable to trade those veterans in exchange for the prospects that Philadelphia’s minor league system desperately needs.
To be fair to Amaro, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins had no-trade rights that made them difficult — if not impossible — to deal. Marlon Byrd had the Royals and Mariners listed on his no-trade clause, blocking two clubs that may have pursued a trade. The Phillies also weren’t helped by Cliff Lee reinjuring his elbow in late July. As it is, the health of that elbow probably would have scared off any team interested in trading for him.
Yet Amaro still had tradeable assets such as relievers Antonio Bastardo and Jonathan Papelbon, along with starting pitcher A.J. Burnett, that could have helped a contender and yielded some young talent — thought not elite prospects — in return. Instead, the Phillies did nothing before the July 31 trade deadline or Aug. 31 waiver deadline, leaving what could be a last-place team intact.
Additionally, not being able to trade away some of those veterans could stunt the development of what young talent the Phillies have.
For example, being stuck with Ryan Howard for another two seasons while his batting numbers continue to decrease could prevent Franco, Cody Asche or Darin Ruf from finding a position and getting crucial playing time. Asche or Ruf might not be impact players for the Phillies, but at this point, both likely provide similar production as Howard at a much cheaper price.
However, the Phillies are apparently happy enough with their general manager’s inactivity that interim president and CEO Pat Gillick announced that both Amaro and manager Ryne Sandberg will be back for the 2015 season. Gillick used the word “absolutely” for emphasis, which almost sounds like a threat.
Perhaps Gillick really couldn’t make any changes while filling in for David Montgomery, who’s taking a medical leave of absence to further recover from cancer surgery. Amaro was one of Gillick’s proteges during his three-year tenure as Phillies GM, so Gillick may still think highly of his former assistant and just feel he needs a little help turning the franchise around. Or maybe 2015 will be a year of evaluation and observation, much like Tony La Russa watching over Kevin Towers and Kirk Gibson in Arizona. That will surely fuel a raging demand for season tickets.
In Sandberg’s case, bringing him back seems fair if Amaro is still going to be the general manager. After all, Amaro hired Sandberg and surely still wants to prove he was the right choice to replace Charlie Manuel. Besides, how can Sandberg’s merits as a field manager be fairly judged with the roster that Amaro gave him this season? Perhaps a more experienced skipper could have managed Philadelphia’s veterans better, but would the ultimate results have been any different?
However, Sandberg’s ability to deal with the veterans in his clubhouse should be a very real concern for the Phillies. In spring training, the first-year manager clashed with Rollins when the shortstop was benched for three days and Sandberg didn’t provide any explanation. Last week, MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki reported tensions between Sandberg and pitcher Cole Hamels. The Phillies’ ace was apparently unhappy over being pulled in the eighth inning, having thrown only 84 pitches, after allowing a game-tying home run.
According to Zolecki, Sandberg had also met with Howard, Domonic Brown and David Buchanan recently to address their playing time. In mid-August, Kyle Kendrick was pulled from a game and nearly walked off the mound before handing the baseball to Sandberg, a rather blatant show of disrespect and frustration. Kendrick may have been upset at how the game developed, but his actions resulted in a meeting between player and manager.
Byrd later defended Sandberg, saying there was no disconnect between him and the players. That seemed to indicate it was the players accustomed to Manuel’s approach who were having issues with the new manager.
Firing any manager after just one year on the job seems unfair and impulsive. Obviously, there are exceptions when someone is just such a bad fit or poor hire that a quick change has to be made. But if it’s a case of the Phillies veterans needing to adjust to Sandberg, along with the manager learning how to communicate with players, that sounds like a situation that can improve. And if the Phillies finish the season strong, that can’t hurt Sandberg’s case. He just needs better players.
That’s the hope, anyway. Keeping the status quo could be a huge risk for the Phillies as they try to maintain a competitive product and convince fans that there’s actually some sort of a plan in place. Perhaps Montgomery’s health issues have delayed any long-term decisions to be made. Or ownership is waiting for Gillick’s opinions on the matter. In the meantime, with little to trade and not much help available in free agency, how can the 2015 Phillies be much improved from this year’s edition?
Most losing teams adopt “Wait until next year” as a slogan. But with Amaro and Sandberg returning, Phillies fans may want to hold next year off for as long as possible.