2020 will be a contract year for Philadelphia Phillies manager. Conventional wisdom is that it’s not a good idea to bring a manager back as a lame duck, and following that logic leads you to one of two conclusions; either the Phillies should give Kapler an extension or make a change at manager at the conclusion of the 2019 season.
It’s unclear how Phillies managing partner John Middleton and general manager Matt Klentak feel about potentially giving Kapler an extension at the conclusion of this season – especially if the club doesn’t reach the postseason – but one report suggests that things aren’t trending in the direction of the Phillies making a managerial change after the season.
Bob Nightengale of USA Today penned a column Wednesday that said “the prevailing belief among Phillies executives is that Kapler’s job is safe.” While Nightengale added qualifiers about at least some sections of the Phillies fanbase not being keen on Kapler and noted that things could always change based on how the rest of the season pans out, he said that Kapler “remains beloved by the front office.”
Kapler, 44, has had a peculiar tenure as Phillies manager.
While the Phillies overachieved for much of the 2018 season, he never seemed to recover from his decision to pull Aaron Nola after 68 pitches in an eventual Opening Day loss to the Atlanta Braves. And even though the Phillies were in first place on Aug. 1, they limped to the finish line of the 2018 season, going 8-20 in September and finishing with an 80-82 record, marking the Phillies seventh consecutive non-winning season.
After a flurry of offseason activity – highlighted by signing Bryce Harper to a 13-year contract in March – 2019 was one of the most anticipated seasons in Phillies history. But while the Phillies had a hot start to the 2019 season, they’ll enter Thursday night’s rubber match with the Arizona Diamondbacks with a 59-54 record. Yes, they control the second Wild Card spot, but they’re seven-and-a-half games back of the division-leading Atlanta Braves, and their presence at the top of the Wild Card race seems to speak more to the mediocrity of the National League after the Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Beyond a feeling that the Phillies have underachieved in 2019, Kapler has continued to draw the ire of some portions of the fanbase and media for what they perceive to be an overreliance on analytics and unconventional tactics. The most recent controversial decision came in a 15-inning loss to the Chicago White Sox last Friday. In a tied game in the 14th, Kapler brought on outfielder Roman Quinn to pitch having run out of pitchers. Pitcher Vince Velasquez – apparently unable to pitch because he had already thrown a bullpen session that day – recorded an outfield assist and made a diving catch in the outfield. Quinn, though he gave up the eventual winning run, limited a major league lineup to just one run in two innings. But in the thick of attempting to reach the postseason for the first time since 2011, it’s understandable that some fans weren’t amused. After the game, Kapler told the collective media, including Matt Gelb of The Athletic, that it was a “horse****” situation that was prompted by Zach Eflin feeling triceps soreness and Ranger Suarez being unable to get loose.
In terms of the court of public opinion, Kapler appears to be trying to run up a hill of quicksand. Those who made up their mind about him after one game of his managerial tenure have been the most vocal, and figure to continue to be. Many others either think the jury is still out on his tenure or don’t feel strongly enough to push back against what at one point was a very vocal minority of diehard detractors. So if the Phillies were to altogether miss the postseason, public sentiment on bringing Kapler back as a lame-duck – and certainly giving him a contract extension – wouldn’t be great. Klentak and Andy MacPhail spoke quite a bit last offseason about how optics and perception mattered.
For what it’s worth, Haper and Jake Arrieta both spoke glowingly in Nightengale’s piece about him. There’s been a perception from some that Kapler is too much of a player’s manager. At the same time, the same crowd that has pushed that narrative also suggests that players don’t respect or respond to him. It’s not impossible for both to be true, but it’s also fair to be skeptical about whether the two dynamics could coexist in the Phillies clubhouse.
One possible scenario is that Kapler returns for a third season as Phillies manager but with a slightly different coaching staff. It’s hard to imagine bench coach Rob Thomson or third base coach Dusty Wathan – believed to be the runner-up in the October 2017 managerial search that ended with Kapler being tabbed – not on Kapler’s 2020 staff. But hitting coach John Mallee has come under criticism for presiding over a lineup where it feels like Harper and J.T. Realmuto have both underachieved to differing degrees. The Phillies bullpen has been ravished with injuries in 2019 and it’s clear they bet too much on internal starting pitching coming into the season, but it may not matter for first-year pitching coach Chris Young. The nature of being a hitting or pitching coach is that you get little credit when things are going well, and quite a bit of blame when things go south.
One other interesting nugget in Nightengale’s piece; Nightengale says there’s a belief that if the Phillies fired Kapler, he would be the favorite to replace Bruce Bochy in San Francisco. Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi was the Los Angeles Dodgers general manager under president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman when the Dodgers conducted a managerial search after parting ways with Don Mattingly following the 2015 season. The Dodgers eventually hired Dave Roberts, which has proven to be a great hire, but Kapler, then the Dodgers director of player development, was seen as the early favorite in the search. However, there was some pushback from notable veteran players – including Clayton Kershaw and Adrian Gonzalez – to him taking over as manager or even serving on Roberts’ staff. In San Francisco, though, Zaidi would seemingly have much more freedom to make whatever decision he thought was the best given that the Giants are much less established as a team.
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