Klentak traded for Realmuto prior to the 2019 season
The Philadelphia Phillies announced in late October 2015 the hiring of then 35-year-old Matt Klentak as their new general manager. Despite his relative youth, Klentak had an impressive volume of experience in baseball.
Like many of us, he played the game as a kid. But he was also good enough to continue in the game at the collegiate level, playing all four years at Dartmouth, including the final three as their starting shortstop.
After graduating with his Economics degree, Klentak was hired by the Colorado Rockies in 2003. The following year he moved on to work in the Labor Relations Department of Major League Baseball.
In 2008, Klentak was hired by the Baltimore Orioles as their Director of Baseball Operations. That hiring was made by the Orioles then-President Andy MacPhail, whom Klentak had impressed while helping work on the 2006 MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Neither MacPhail nor Klentak had their contracts renewed by Baltimore following the 2011 season. However, Klentak was not out of work for long, hired that off-season by the Los Angeles Angels as their assistant general manager.
The Halos had a chance to hire Klentak as their GM when the position opened in the midst of the 2015 season but opted to go in another direction. During that same summer, MacPhail joined the Phillies organization.
When that 2015 season ended, MacPhail ascended to the team president position with the Phillies. One of his first orders of business was to hire his old Orioles protege Klentak as the Phillies new general manager.
During this past summer it was revealed in the media that both MacPhail and Klentak had recently received contract extensions. Those extensions would keep MacPhail in his role through 2021, and Klentak in his position through the 2022 season.
Despite those contracts there has been a vocal backlash against both MacPhail and Klentak from an increasingly frustrated Phillies fan base.
Calls have grown over recent weeks as the team fell out of playoff contention for a complete change in the Phillies decision-making regime. Those changes included not only the president and GM, but also on down to manager Gabe Kapler, whose situation I addressed in a piece just yesterday.
I already addressed the situation regarding MacPhail months ago and have repeatedly and publicly called for his ouster. No change in either the GM or managerial positions is going to matter in improving the club over the long haul without a change at the very top.
So, the question today is, should the Phillies retain Matt Klentak as their general manager?
In evaluating Klentak’s job performance, it is important to understand that the position includes a number of responsibilities that few fans ever see or care about. Let’s assume he is experienced enough to handle those responsibilities competently.
What matters to the fan base is how Klentak performs in actually bringing talent to the baseball organization, especially to the team at the big-league level. In a city like Philadelphia, winning is what matters more than anything.
Most successful rebuilding operations take roughly four years before yielding success. In the four years of the MacPhail-Klentak regime, the Phillies have accumulated an overall 298-350 record. They have not enjoyed a single winning season, let alone reached the MLB playoffs.
Not only that, but the organization appears to have deteriorated at the minor league level as well. In the summer of 2015, the Phillies were widely considered to have a top ten organization where minor league talent was concerned.
This summer, after four years of the MacPhail-Klentak regime making picks in the MLB Draft and bringing in prospects to the system through other methods including via trades and the July 2nd international signing period, the Phillies system is rated near the bottom by most respected evaluators.
Not all of that failure is on Klentak. The fact is that he is restricted in some ways by the need to answer to and coordinate with MacPhail and the scouting staff on the draft and amateur signings process.
There was also a reluctance by Middleton, as advised by MacPhail, to make money available for signing big-name free agents during those first few years.
However, that financial restriction was very publicly lifted last fall when Middleton announced that the Phillies were, as reported by ESPN, “…going into this expecting to spend money, and maybe even be a little bit stupid about it.”
So, let’s simply evaluate Klentak on his actual performance since that time in adding talent to the big-league club, and then in reinforcing the team when talent shortfalls became obvious and injuries struck.
The off-season prior to 2019 was considered a success after Klentak signed free agents Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen for the outfield and traded for shortstop Jean Segura and catcher J.T. Realmuto.
Those four moves dramatically increased both the experience and leadership levels of the ball club, as well as the proven talent level available to Kapler in the everyday lineup.
Klentak did not entirely ignore the pitching situation either. He made an astute under-the-radar trade early last December, swapping out relief pitcher Luis Garcia to the Angels for southpaw reliever Jose Alvarez.
Also, in the Segura trade to Seattle, Klentak received veteran right-hander Juan Nicasio, who had briefly pitched with the Phillies in the 2017 campaign.
Finally, in early January he signed one of the best and most consistent relief pitchers of the last decade as a free agent in David Robertson.
The Phillies roster was obviously improved as the regular season got underway, and with the new offensive firepower and deeper bullpen, the club was picked as a postseason favorite by many prognosticators.
Almost from the outset, that bullpen depth was tested by repeated injuries. At various points over the next few weeks and months the Phillies would lose a parade of relievers for the season.
Robertson, Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, Victor Arano, Seranthony Dominguez. All were expected to be key contributors. The five would combine for just 52 total appearances, less than a full season worth of work.
In late May, Odubel Herrera was lost in a completely unexpected manner after he was arrested for domestic battery on his 20-year-old girlfriend in an Atlantic City hotel room. Herrera would be suspended by Major League Baseball and was done for the entire season.
Within days of that blow to the lineup, the Phillies would also lose McCutchen for the season due to a devastating knee injury and subsequent surgery. They would receive a combined 98 games worth of play from their anticipated starting left and center fielders.
Klentak did make various moves over the course of the season in attempts to bolster his bench and then cover for those losses to the starting lineup. Those included trades for veteran outfielders Jay Bruce and Corey Dickerson, the purchase of utility man Brad Miller, and the signing of free agent Logan Morrison.
Unfortunately, both Bruce and Dickerson would be lost to the team for large chunks of the season after each initially provided valuable contributions to the club as it struggled to remain in contention.
It would also have been Klentak’s decision to allow rookie Adam Haseley, the club’s first round pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, an opportunity to go from Double-A to the big-leagues at age 23 in just his second full year of professional ball to help cover for those outfield injuries.
There were offensive inconsistencies in both approach and results from the players who were actually in the lineup. Klentak acted to address that situation with the removal of hitting coach John Mallee in mid-season.
Trying to cover for the bullpen losses, Klentak purchased reliever Mike Morin, picked up Jared Hughes off waivers, and signed free agents Blake Parker, Fernando Salas, and Nick Vincent.
Salas pitched in just three games. But the other four became key members of the bullpen, generally making solid contributions over the season’s final couple of months. The foursome combined to pitch in 91 games, allowing 72 hits over 90 innings with an 83/26 K:BB ratio.
The one area of the ball club that was never properly addressed was the starting pitching rotation. Management, including Klentak, made a bet on the incumbent group of pitchers to improve in the 2019 season. It didn’t happen.
Aaron Nola failed to reproduce his Cy Young contending season of a year ago. Jake Arrieta just plain failed, and then was lost due to injury after 24 starts.
Vince Velasquez was again unable to maintain consistency in a starting role, especially in lasting deep into his outings. Nick Pivetta pitched so poorly that he was eventually relegated to the bullpen on a full-time basis. Jerad Eickhoff returned from injury, then got injured again.
Perhaps the one starter who exceeded expectations was Zach Eflin. Around a horrendous six-start stretch from late June through late July that got him also relegated to the pen, Eflin provided an impressive opening and closing stretch.
Klentak attempted to cover for the losses of Arrieta and Eickhoff and the ineffectiveness of Pivetta by signing Drew Smyly and trading for Jason Vargas in July. That pair of left-handers would make 23 combined starts with the Phillies over the last two months.
Together, Smyly and Vargas went 4-6 and allowed 122 hits over 118 innings with a 111/45 K:BB ratio. Essentially the two provided back-end rotation production when what the team really needed was at least one ace-level starter for the playoff push.
The failure to add at least one high caliber starting pitcher, and more preferably two, was perhaps the single most important and decisive factor in the Phillies ultimately falling short of a 2019 postseason berth.
The loss of McCutchen and Herrera to the lineup, and later of Bruce, Dickerson, and Roman Quinn. The losses of Robertson and the others in the bullpen. Backslide seasons from Nola, Pivetta, Rhys Hoskins, and Maikel Franco. The mediocre production provided by Segura. You simply cannot put any of that on Klentak.
You cannot make a valid argument that the GM didn’t make moves trying to plug the holes in the lineup, on the bench, and in the bullpen. The one area where you can legitimately criticize is the starting rotation. Vargas just wasn’t good enough.
Dallas Keuchel went to division rival Atlanta for reasonable money as a free agent. Marcus Stroman went to the division rival Mets for a reasonable return that the Phillies may have been able to beat earlier by putting a package together led by pitching prospect Adonis Medina.
You can make a legitimate argument that even had they landed either of those two arms rather than doing the Vargas deal, the Phillies might still have fallen short of the postseason. Perhaps. But they would have enjoyed a far better chance.
The argument that over four years, Klentak has failed to put together a winning organization at the big-league level is a legitimate one. However, that it didn’t happen this year was largely due to situations beyond his control. His efforts to plug those holes were largely commendable.
However, the failure to build a farm system that is not ready to inject talent in waves to the Phillies, or to be used as truly enticing trade assets, is problematic. That is especially so when considering the young talent amassed by all of their rivals in the National League East Division.
For me, the time is now for change at the top of the Philadelphia Phillies organization. That begins with club president Andy MacPhail. But it also extends to general manager Matt Klentak. As the top decision makers, they have failed the organization. Both need to go.
My choice to replace MacPhail would be Philly native Chaim Bloom, a longtime executive with the consistently over-achieving Tampa Bay Rays organization despite being just 36 years of age.
My gut tells me that Middleton won’t be able to admit his mistake in granting them both an early contract extension and throw in the towel on either at this point. Fans will be disappointed by the return of the entire Phillies decision-making regime for 2020.
However, if there were to be such a change at the top, you would likely see Kapler either go as well, or find himself seriously compromised as a new regime took control, perhaps wanting to bring in their own man to take over in the dugout.
There is simply too much talk about the Phillies front office and management in the media and among the fan base for Middleton to leave the situation go unaddressed. Expect there to be some announcement this week or next on the 2020 status of MacPhail, Klentak, and Kapler.