The Philadelphia Phillies have been running their decision-makers out in front of the media this week as spring training has gotten underway down in Clearwater, Florida. Two days ago it was manager Gabe Kapler, and yesterday general manager Matt Klentak took his turn in front of the press.
Today it was president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail who sat down and provided organizational updates and then answered questions from the gathered media members.
MacPhail started off wanting to provide a history of how the Phillies got to the point where they are today during his tenure with the club. That tenure began when he was hired as a special assistant to then-president Pat Gillick in June 2015. MacPhail would succeed Gillick as the club president at the conclusion of that season.
“I don’t think this organization really committed to a rebuild until July of 2015,” said MacPhail, obviously equating that start with his arrival in town. He went on to list some of the player salaries shed in the aftermath of his arrival, and then said that the contract savings were used to make “a series of significant investments in the infrastructure of the franchise while our payroll was diminished.”
Those investments came in the areas of facilities, personnel, and technology.
Funds invested in the area of facilities took a number of forms, including a new Phillies academy opened in 2016 in the Dominican Republic, which is a traditional hotbed of amateur baseball talent.
There were also improvements made last year at Citizens Bank Park, including major changes to the fan experience in the right field area of Ashburn Alley. MacPhail said there will be further noticeable improvements this year to the third base/outfield area.
Fans who live and travel in the area have noticed scaffolding around the perimeter of the ballpark during this off-season. This was described by MacPhail as part of a process that the organization is undergoing in applying for their Safety Act to help “create an environment where it is a much more secure and safe place for our fans.”
MacPhail also told of “a huge new building that’s being built” on Darien Street near the ballpark which fans will notice as they arrive to games for the 2019 season. He said that when he addressed the personnel area, there would be further explanation of what this building would be used for, but never specifically got back to the topic, unless this will be the place to house the new hires.
Funds invested by the club in the personnel area took on three forms: traditional baseball roles, “new ground” areas as far as the Phillies interest in hiring people to such positions, and finally the hiring of new personnel on the business side.
The Phillies have added two minor league teams and added a fourth coach at each affiliate in the traditional baseball area. The club has “increased our scouting in every way, shape, and form that you can, whether it be domestic, professional, or international,” said MacPhail. “Specifically, a huge investment in international because now we have a good prominence in the Far East, where we did not in the past.”
MacPhail went on to explain what he meant by “new ground” personnel, stating that these were the types of resources that some other clubs already employed but that are new to the Phillies, specifically mental skills coaches, a robust analytics department, a team chef, a cultural assimilation department, player information coordinators at both the big-league and minor league levels, nutritionists, and more.
On the business side, MacPhail emphasized that the Phillies had to “significantly increase the technology footprint, personnel-wise, of our organization.” He described roles for those individuals as having to do with social media and business analytics.
MacPhail then wrapped his description of the recent improvements made by the Phillies organization by speaking to the increased use of technological advances by the club, much of which he described as “proprietary” and which could evaluate a player’s development from rookie ball through the major leagues.
“It’s an arms race. Our opponents have it, and if we want to compete, we need to have it.“
The Phillies thus used most of the money saved by a greatly decreased payroll to improve their base infrastructure. MacPhail then stated that with that firmer base established, it has now become time to use funds to improve the actual player roster.
“We were by far the youngest team in baseball as we started the 2018 season. We were coming off a 66-win season the year before. That team (the 2018 Phillies) would end up improving by 14 games, and we would spend 38 days in first place over the course of the summer.”
MacPhail recognized what he termed the “abysmal” finish of the team over the final seven weeks of that 2018 campaign. However, the performance as a whole led the Phillies decision-makers to determine that it was time to “support that ’18 group” by adding to the payroll.
“I think the acquisitions that Matt (Klentak) and the baseball operations made are gonna do a lot to improve our defense. Moving Rhys (Hoskins) back to first base, the acquisitions of Segura and McCutchen, uh, Realmuto. Those things will only help, significantly.”
MacPhail believes that one of the major challenges that the Phillies faced a year ago was the “wampum” from big lefty hitters in the lineups of their NL East opponents. The 2018 team had a 23-34 combined record against the Braves, Nationals, and Mets a year ago. Finding a way to reverse that record would make them a true playoff contender.
He feels that the addition of righty reliever David Robertson, who has strong career numbers against left-handed hitters, as well as lefty arms James Pazos and Jose Alvarez will help turn around those divisional results by better neutralizing those lefty opposition bats in the late innings.
“I sit, at this point, largely happy that those areas that I thought were important have been addressed.” MacPhail went on to note that “We are still, despite all the acquisitions…a very young baseball team. We stand to only have one position player on the roster on Opening Day that’s reached 30. And we still have 80% of our starting rotation as under 27. So, I’m pretty happy and pleased with where we sit at the present time.”
MEDIA QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION
At that, MacPhail opened the floor to questions from the gathered media representatives. Howard Eskin of SportsRadio 94.1FM WIP opened the session by getting right to the biggest issue on the minds of fans, the pursuit of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
Eskin asked whether MacPhail was “concerned that the fan base will not be happy if that one major free agent is not signed, and, since there’s reports every day, why don’t I just ask you, do you know anything about the reports?”
To begin his response, MacPhail immediately highlighted that he may not be capable of fully relating to his club’s fan base. “I’ve been around a long time. I won’t pretend to be something I’m not. I’m not a Philly-centric guy. I spent four years in Carlisle (123 miles west of Philadelphia), that’s as close as I got.”
Asked about the labor situation in baseball, you can hear in his response an acknowledgment of the Harper and Machado situations.
“I don’t think that we should make the assumption…that a lack of a signature on a contract on February 15th necessarily means that’s lack of interest or lack of a market. And all we have to do is go back and look at last year…from February 15 to Opening Day (2018)…Major League Baseball clubs committed over a half-billion dollars to contracts…35 players were signed…so just because the market is moving slowly doesn’t mean that there isn’t interest. I have to think that it is a strategy employed by some who think that is in their best interest.”
When specifically asked about the wisdom of handing a lengthy contract to a player in the 8-10-year range, MacPhail responded as follows:
“I think each case you have to evaluate individually. I’m not talking about either one of them (Harper or Machado) specifically. But I think your appetite for something long is going to be significantly different for someone who is 26 as opposed to someone who is 30-31. That’s why you have to make a series of judgments about whatever player you’re talking about in terms of how will he hold up, what position does he play, what else can he do. There’s just a host of variables that go into that.”
Later asked whether he would be disappointed to not land either Harper or Machado, MacPhail reiterated his happiness with where the team stands right now.
“I think it would be a hard thing to make a case that we are not a considerably better team than we were a year ago…I would like us to get better yet…It’s conceivable that could happen. It may not. But if it doesn’t happen, we’re still gonna be a considerably better team than we were a year ago.”
When faced with a question regarding overwhelming fan preference for Harper to Machado, the club president responded, “You can make the case that they bring different things, but I think they’re both beneficial to your club.”
Asked whether the messaging to fans that the Phillies are supposedly trying to become big winners might not be accepted well by fans considering the marquee players remain unsigned and available, MacPhail stated that “we’re just half of the equation“, implying that the Phillies are ready and willing to sign one of them, but the players need to also be willing.
When asked about the controversy which cropped up involving Kapler’s response to the assault on a young female during his days with the Dodgers, MacPhail stated: “All the stuff that was regurgitated again this winter, there was nothing in there that made me think that the vetting (of Kapler when hired) was anything but very thorough, very impartial, and very fair. We were satisfied then when we hired him. We’re satisfied today.”
On fan interest reflected in ticket sales, MacPhail stated that “we’re about 150,000 ahead of where we were a year ago…we’re good, but we’re not great.”
On owner John Middleton and his desire to win: “I think the thing that separates John is that if we won this year, he’d want to win just as much next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. Which is one of the reasons why it’s essential to us to make sure that we have enough resources to address future needs as they evolve from year to year to year.”
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