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Phillies Nuggets: On the pressure facing Gabe Kapler after Bryce Harper signing

Gabe Kapler’s relationship with Bryce Harper will be closely monitored. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)

In the grand scheme of things, how important is a team’s current manager when a player is thinking about signing a deal in excess of 10 years? From here, not as important as many perceive it to be. The manager is certainly not as important as the general manager or owner. Managers come and go. Charlie Manuel, the most successful manager in Phillies franchise history, “only” lasted eight-and-a-half seasons as Phillies manager. Since Manuel was fired in August of 2013, the Phillies have had three different managers. Again, managers come and go.

Over the course of the 13 seasons that Bryce Harper has agreed to join the Phillies for, he will almost certainly have multiple different managers. It’s just the nature of the beast. San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who will retire at the conclusion of the 2019 season, is the only active MLB manager to have spent more than a decade with his current team. Terry Francona, Clint Hurdle and Joe Maddon, all very accomplished managers, have changed teams at some point in their managerial careers. Gabe Kapler could literally be the most successful manager in Phillies history, and there’s a good chance he won’t still be the Phillies manager in 2031, the final year of Harper’s deal.

But Kapler, the eccentric second-year manager, will be Harper’s skipper at the outset of his $330 million deal. And the relationship between the two will be interesting to monitor.

Some Phillies fans wondered if Kapler’s quirky personality – one that mixes uber-positivity with an intense desire to win – would affect the club’s ability to lure top free-agents. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. When you put $330 million in front of a player over a 13-year span, who the manager is becomes an afterthought. The Phillies play in a beautiful stadium in one of the most sports-crazed cities, have a managing partner in John Middleton that is intent on spending his money and a general manager in Matt Klentak that’s developing a reputation as one of the game’s toughest negotiators. That’s a mix that could excite a player.

There is conflicting information on what impression Kapler left on Harper, though.

Jon Heyman of MLB Network, who ultimately broke the news that Harper had agreed to a deal with the Phillies, tweeted on Jan. 16 that Harper and Kapler “hit it off” during the Phillies initial free-agent meeting with the six-time All-Star. Kapler was part of a group of Phillies brass – one that included Middleton, Klentak and president Andy MacPhail – who met with Harper, his wife Kayla and his agent, Scott Boras, in Las Vegas on Jan. 12. Kapler later told MLB Network that he and Kapler bonded about training and the food scene in Philadelphia.

That’s one side of things.

However, two sources told Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated that “Harper was turned off by Kapler’s intensity.” Boras, fresh off of completing a record deal for his client, sided with the report from Heyman and Kapler’s account, saying “They talked, they hit it off. They were two peas in a pod.” Again, regardless of how Harper felt about his new manager when meeting with the Phillies, it probably wasn’t at the top of the list when he was making his decision. But the relationship between the polarizing manager and the face of baseball will be heavily monitored moving forward.

Kapler, a former outfielder himself, certainly recognizes the pressure he’s under in 2019. The 2018 season – which was perhaps filled with more peaks and valleys than any Phillies season in the last 25 years – isn’t a sustainable path for a baseball team. In any sport, when the coach or manager is the most discussed person on the team, it’s usually not a good thing, even if said coach or manager is excellent at his job.

The Phillies got off to a tumultuous 1-4 start in 2018, Kapler’s first season at the helm. Kapler controversially pulled Aaron Nola after just 68 pitches on Opening Day, only for the bullpen to blow a 5-0 lead. Two nights later, against an Atlanta Braves team that ultimately won the National League East, the Phillies lost 15-2 and were forced to use utility infielder Pedro Florimon to pitch. That came in the same game that Kapler called for lefty Hoby Milner to come out of the bullpen to pitch. The only problem? Milner wasn’t warmed up.

Kapler heard a chorus of boos ahead of the Phillies home opener on April 5. A funny thing happened, though. In a town that had dealt with Chip Kelly’s stubbornness, Kapler listened to his players. He met with Pat Neshek and Carlos Santana, two respected veterans, to address any clubhouse concerns.

And the Phillies turned things around.

The Phillies would defeat the Miami Marlins 5-0 on the same day that Kapler heard boos during introductions. They won 20-1 the next night. By Aug. 1, the Phillies had bought at the non-waiver trade deadline, were in first place in the National League East and Kapler was a leading candidate for National League Manager of the Year.

Then the Phillies hit a wall.

The final two months of the Phillies 2018 season may be remembered for the amount of different lineups Kapler put together in an attempt to keep the Phillies playoff hopes from fading. It didn’t work. Odubel Herrera hit just .214 with a .622 OPS after the All-Star Break. For all of his efforts to become a left fielder, Rhys Hoskins just wasn’t a fit in the outfield. And while Aaron Nola was completing one of the most dominant seasons in Phillies history, the other four-fifths of the Phillies starting rotation posted an ERA north of five after the midsummer classic.

After entering August in first place in the National League East, the Phillies went 21-34 in the final two months of the season. Not only did they not reach the postseason for the first time since 2011, but after entering August 11 games above .500, the Phillies finished at 80-82. It extended a streak of six consecutive losing seasons, and seven non-winning campaigns after the golden era of Phillies baseball.

For whatever criticisms there may have been of Kapler’s managerial style, it became apparent over the final two months that the Phillies didn’t have enough talent to be a postseason team. That won’t be the case in 2019.

Beyond Harper, a former National League MVP, the Phillies acquired J.T. Realmuto from the Miami Marlins in February. Realmuto, an All-Star in 2018, has been the best offensive catcher in baseball since the start of the 2016 season, per FanGraphs. And he stands to get even better playing his home games at Citizens Bank Park, as opposed to Marlins Park, one of the least hitter-friendly stadiums in baseball.

Those two were the prize pieces acquired in one of the most successful on-paper offseasons a baseball team has ever had. Former National League MVP Andrew McCutchen will be the team’s new left fielder, having agreed to a three-year/$45 million deal. Two-time All-Star shortstop Jean Segura was acquired from the Seattle Mariners, in a deal that saw the Phillies move on from the aforementioned Santana, which will allow Hoskins to move back to first base. And David Robertson, a veteran reliever with postseason experience in a variety of roles, joined the Phillies on a two-year/$23 million deal that should bolster an already-talented bullpen.

The best part about the prospects for Kapler’s second season is that he’ll be able to fade into the background. The worst part? With the immense amount of talent the Phillies added this offseason, he’ll likely bear the brunt of the blame if his suddenly star-studded lineup doesn’t lead the Phillies to the postseason. He told the SportsRadio 94 WIP Morning Show Friday that he will “embrace the pressure.” That’s good, because there will be plenty of it on him.

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