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What the Phillies should do with Gabe Kapler for 2020

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The Phillies have gone 161-163 during two seasons under manager Gabe Kapler

 

The Major League Baseball postseason begins on Tuesday night with the Washington Nationals hosting the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Wildcard Game.

For an eighth consecutive October, there will be no playoff baseball drama and excitement at Citizens Bank Park. That seemed an almost ludicrous possibility when the season opened back in late March with a home sweep of the division-rival Atlanta Braves.

This was the second year for the club under 44-year-old manager Gabe Kapler. He still has one year remaining on the three-year deal given when he signed to take over a team believed to be in the final stages of a rebuilding program for the 2018 season.

Under Kapler’s guidance, the Phillies surprisingly fought their way to the top of the National League East Division during his first summer at the helm. They were in first place as late as August 12.

From that point on, the club collapsed to a 15-30 finish over the final seven weeks of the 2018 campaign. Still, the ultimate 80-82, third place finish was better than many had expected when the season began.

Everything changed during the winter prior to the 2019 season, however. The Phillies, spurred by owner John Middleton, opened up their wallets in free agency and became more aggressive in the trade market.

The result was a far more experienced and dynamic starting lineup entering the 2019 season thanks to the additions of Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen on the outfield corners, shortstop Jean Segura, and catcher J.T. Realmuto.

Those four would join a returning core of first baseman Rhys Hoskins, center fielder Odubel Herrera, third baseman Maikel Franco, and second baseman Cesar Hernandez.

Once again, the Phillies got off to a strong start. Following an 11-4 victory over the Saint Louis Cardinals on May 29, the club sat a season-high 11 games over the .500 mark and held a 3.5 game lead in the division.

As late as June 11, the Phillies remained in first place. But then it all suddenly fell apart. Losses in 11 of 13 games were low-lighted by a seven-game losing streak.

It all coincided with a winning stretch by the defending division champion Atlanta Braves. By the time the losing skid was over, the Phillies had not only lost their division lead, but had fallen 6.5 games behind the surging Braves.

From June 8, the last time that the Phillies reached 10 games over the .500 mark, until the end of the season, the team played to a 44-54 mark.

On Independence Day, they fell out of second place for the first time, passed by a red-hot Washington Nationals club. On August 10, the New York Mets slipped past them, dropping the Phillies to fourth place.

Still, the Phillies managed to hang around in the race for the second and final National League Wildcard playoff berth. As late as September 10 they were just two games off the pace.

Unfortunately, they could never sustain enough of a winning streak to seriously push themselves back into the race. They never won five games in a row all year long, and finished up by losing nine of their final dozen games.

The 2019 Phillies spent just one day all season – September 26 – below the .500 mark. Aside from that June swoon slump, they never fell into a deep enough skid to get knocked completely out of the race. Until the final two weeks that is.

There are a number of reasons that the Phillies finished the 2019 season just one game better than the 2018 season. The first and most obvious is key injuries.

McCutchen was lost for the season as June got underway. Jay Bruce stepped into the starting lineup and provided a power lefty bat and veteran presence. Until he was injured, missing roughly 50 games over the final three months.

Herrera didn’t get injured, he injured someone else, getting himself arrested in Atlantic City following a domestic assault on his 20-year-old girlfriend. He would ultimately be suspended for the season by Major League Baseball.

His replacement, Roman Quinn, did what Quinn does. He looked dynamic until he got hurt, playing in just 44 games all year and ending the season on the IL, to no one’s surprise.

But it was the bullpen where injuries struck hardest, quickest, and most often. Tommy Hunter, David Robertson, Seranthony Dominguez, Pat Neshek, Victor Arano, Adam Morgan, and Jerad Eickhoff would all succumb to various injuries.

The rotation was healthy for much of the year, they just were never consistently effective. Aaron Nola, the presumptive ace who was a 2018 Cy Young Award finalist, was simply very good for much of the year, pitching more like a solid #2 starter.

The rest of the rotation members enjoyed what can only be described as a roller-coaster campaign. Veteran Jake Arrieta, in the second year of a big free agent contract, was pitching like a back-end starter before going down for the year after 24 starts.

Kapler began the season using a mostly set lineup in the early going when the team was winning. But it seemed that as soon as there were struggles, he abandoned that, returning to his troubling rookie managerial season habit of a new lineup nearly every day.

Not only did Kapler come up with some new configuration on a game-by-game basis, but he also was juggling players in and out. He continued to shuffle Scott Kingery all around the diamond. And Franco just seemed to fall completely out of favor with the skipper at one point, getting sent to the minor leagues.

So, where does all of this leave Kapler? Frankly, in my opinion, there is no way that you can possibly pin all – not even most – of the Phillies struggles in 2019 on him.

Kapler managed the 25 players, a few more in September, who he had available to him on any given night the best that he could. This is where the big question comes in – is Kapler’s best good enough?

Back in mid-August, with the Phillies struggles to put together a consistent winning stretch becoming more apparent with each passing week, Kapler appeared in a revealing radio interview at local sports talk 94 WIP FM. In that interview he stated the following:

“…the life of a baseball manager is that you manage until the day that you get fired and almost everyone gets fired at some point. I guess I’d say this, I’m not going to manage scared. I didn’t play scared. I fought and gave everything I had every single day. You’re going to manage in the same way. So, if I get fired I do and it’ll be a hard day for me to deal with, but I’m not going to waste a single ounce of my mental or emotional energy thinking about myself when I could be thinking about how I could help us win tonight’s game. The players, those 25 men battling out there, those are the ones that matter.”

When I see what happened to the 2019 Phillies and think about a managerial change, one question that comes to mind is, could anyone else have done better, based on the circumstances?

Two days ago, I ran a poll at my Twitter feed, asking fans who should be the Phillies manager in 2020. I gave four choices: Kapler, Joe Girardi, Joe Maddon, or “Other”, asking fans to comment if they had a different preference.

Over 18 hours, the poll received 463 votes, and results were as follows:

The comments yielded other names: Mike Scioscia (4), Clint Hurdle (2), Dusty Wathan (2), Buck Showalter, Raul Ibanez, and even Charlie Manuel.

So, I am left to consider whether experienced big-league skippers like Girardi, Maddon, Scioscia, Hurdle, and Showalter or any of the other names could have done better this year than Kapler.

Frankly, I find it difficult to believe that they could. Every one of these men is out of a job right now, and there are any number of reasons for that fact. Mostly because they simply weren’t getting it done where they were.

Kapler rubs many Phillies fans the wrong way. They dislike what is often seen as a Pollyanna style of backing his players in public, rarely willing to criticize those players even when they repeatedly fail.

He has also battled from behind from the very beginning for many of those fans due to his physical fitness, his personal blog which described his preference for coconut oil during certain activities, and especially his heavy reliance on analytics and statistics.

I was asked frequently over the last month what I thought should happen with Kapler in 2020. I repeatedly said that I was waiting until the season was over before revealing my opinion.

The fact is that I had my own bottom line. The Phillies had to finish with a winning season in order for Kapler to return in 2020. A total collapse to a losing season and there was no doubt that I would be recommending a change.

But neither happened. The Phillies finished at .500, the only team in Major League Baseball to finish with a dead-even 81-81 record this year.

I publicly criticized Kapler’s often head-scratching lineup choices on a frequent basis over the last few months. But his “style” never bothered me the way that it seemed to bother many other fans.

When evaluating Kapler, I harken back to Terry Francona, who was fired after four years as the Phillies skipper on this very date in 2000.

The Phillies were Francona’s first managerial opportunity, just as they are Kapler’s first chance to lead from the dugout in the big-leagues. After being fired in Philly, Francona went on to become one of the best and most respected managers in Major League Baseball.

His teams won 744 times over eight seasons with the Boston Red Sox. He guided them to the playoffs five times and won two World Series titles. Francona has now won 638 games over the last seven years with the Cleveland Indians, with four playoff appearances and an AL pennant.

I think Francona was a good manager in Philadelphia, albeit a bit inexperienced. But he was one without a lot of experienced, championship-caliber talent. I see no reason that he wouldn’t have eventually won here as the talent improved.

Manuel was not embraced at first by Phillies fans, but grew to become beloved. (Keith Allison)

As Kapler gains experience with another year at the helm, could a Phillies pitching staff improved by some key off-season additions this winter and just a little more luck with health in 2020 make his perceived eccentricities more palatable to the fan base?

I remember when Manuel was first hired with the Phillies. The majority of fans wanted former Pirates and Marlins skipper Jim Leyland to get the job. They saw Manuel as some country hick who would never last in Philadelphia.

Today, Manuel is the beloved ‘Uncle Charlie’, the man who guided the Phillies to five consecutive NL East titles, two National League pennants, and the 2008 World Series championship. He is a Wall of Famer who will be popular with fans until the day he dies and beyond.

Now, I don’t know whether Gabe Kapler will ever accumulate the kind of records that either Francona or Manuel have in the future. What I do know is that fans were far too quick to go negative on those two managers.

This isn’t going to be a popular opinion, based on what I am reading on social media and hearing on the radio. But emotions aside, I don’t think that any of the alternative names above can necessarily be counted on to do a better job.

I think that Kapler should come back for the 2020 season as the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. I firmly believe that he does everything within his power to win every game.

It appears to me that he does everything in his power to keep his players looking ahead. I have no problem whatsoever with his trying to keep the atmosphere as positive as possible, no matter the circumstances.

Kapler has one year left on his contract. See how things go next year. Give him the final year on his deal to see if he can be a part of turning things around.

Now, if in the coming days, the Phillies decide to go in another direction, that is fine. But the real problems with the organization lie higher on the food chain for me. If they simply fire the manager without making changes higher up, nothing will really change as far as long-term contention.

Philadelphia Phillies 2019 coaching staff has been finalized

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Rick Kranitz let go after serving as Phillies pitching coach this past season

The Philadelphia Phillies announced moves over the last few days aimed at finalizing their coaching staff for the 2019 Major League Baseball season.

The biggest moves came with the big-league pitching staff. As our Tim Kelly here at Phillies Nation reported just two days ago, the Phillies let former pitching coach Rick Kranitz go, replacing him with the previous assistant pitching coach, Chris Young.
Kranitz had served on the big-league staff over the past three seasons as the bullpen (2016) and assistant pitching (2017) coach prior to taking on the primary pitching coach role this past season.

Prior to joining the Phillies, Kranitz served as pitching coach with the Florida Marlins, Baltimore Orioles, and Milwaukee Brewers.

Today the Phillies announced that Dave Lundquist, who has served as the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs pitching coach for the last three seasons and has been coaching in the Phillies organization for the last 11 years, will move up to take the position as the new assistant pitching coach to Lundquist in Philadelphia.
Returning to the staff for next season are manager Gabe Kapler, his bench coach Rob Thomson, and both hitting coach John Mallee and his assistant, Pedro Guerrero. Also coming back are first base coach Jose Flores and third base coach Dusty Wathan.
Others making a return to the staff for the 2019 campaign will be bullpen coach Jim Gott, bullpen catcher and catching coach Bob Stumpo, and Craig Driver, who also serves as a bullpen catcher with duties as a receiving coach.
The removal of Kranitz from the pitching coach position was somewhat surprising. There are four legs to any successful baseball team: pitching, hitting, defense, and coaching. It can be argued that the pitching staff was the one competitive leg that the Phillies could rely on for much of the 2018 season.
Todd Zolecki at MLB.com quoted Phillies reliever Pat Neshek on the loss of Kranitz through a text from the veteran:
Best pitching coach I EVER had. He was a huge influence on me during my time in Philly and I think with the entire pitching staff. You’ll never hear one pitcher say anything bad about him. He had an excellent attitude every day that the players respected. Decisions happen in baseball all the time. Kranny will be tough to replace.
However, according to MLB insider Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, a number of teams were after Young to fill their primary pitching coach position. The Phillies simply felt he was too valuable to lose. Evidently, more valuable than Kranitz, who the club will allow to interview with other organizations even though he remains under contract.
promoting assistant pitching coach Chris Young to pitching coach in place of Rick Kranitz, sources tell The Athletic. Team will allow Kranitz to interview elsewhere. Move prompted by multiple teams showing interest in making Young their head pitching coach.

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The Phillies new pitching coach should not be confused with either of two MLB players who each saw significant big-league time over the last decade.
There was as Chris Young who played as an outfielder with six teams from 2006 through this past season, and who is now a 35-year-old free agent. The other Chris Young was a pitcher who appeared from 2004 through the 2017 season with five different clubs. He is now retired and at age 39 is a vice-president within the Major League Baseball administrative organization.

The Phillies pitching coach played college ball at Mississippi State, and was selected by the Colorado Rockies with their 18th round pick in the 2002 MLB Amateur Draft. Following six minor league seasons he retired. From 2010-17, Young served in a scouting position with the San Diego Padres and Houston Astros before joining the Phillies staff this past season.

Originally published at Phillies Nation as “Phillies set their 2019 big-league coaching staff

Nick Williams promoted to big leagues by Phillies

The Philadelphia Phillies are promoting outfield prospect Nick Williams for his first big league opportunity this weekend.
The promotion for Williams comes as a direct response to left fielder Howie Kendrick being placed on the Disabled List. The hamstring injury disables the nearly 34-year old for a second time already this season. Kendrick previously was out of the lineup from mid-April through the end of May.
The Phillies also recently released outfielder Michael Saunders. A legitimate argument can be made that the additions of Saunders and Kendrick this past off-season were wastes of time and money.
However, others will say that the two signings did the job. The veterans bought a couple of months while prospects such as Williams “percolated” in the minor leagues. That may turn out to be the case in the long run. Time will tell.
For now, extremely frustrated Phillies fans will get to watch one of the hyped prospects perform each night.
Williams came to the Phils from the Texas Rangers as part of the big Cole Hamels trade back in the summer of 2015. He becomes the fifth piece of that trade to reach the big leagues. Alec AsherJerad EickhoffJorge Alfaro, and Jake Thompson have previously made their debut from that deal.
At the time of his promotion, Williams was hitting for a .277/.326/.511 slash line for the AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs. The 23-year old ripped 15 homers and had 33 extra-base hits. He produced 44 rbi, and scored 43 runs in 302 plate appearances this season. Williams also has five stolen bases.

INCREASED MATURITY LEADS TO MEASURABLE RESULTS

There was an opportunity last season for Williams to force his way into the big league picture. However, the lefty hitter struggled in the minors. Maturity issues played a big part in his troubles.
But this season, Williams has demonstrated increased maturity in every facet of his game and attitude. That was demonstrated in a game earlier this month. He quickly snapped out of a brief funk that would have turned into a major slump a year ago.
IronPigs manager Dusty Wathan was quoted by Tom Housenick of The Morning Call after that June 11 game:
“Once he matured and learned that it doesn’t do him any good to make excuses, … that’s where he’s at now. He got another opportunity and said, ‘let’s do something about it.’ We’ve seen a lot of that lately. His first two at-bats weren’t great. In the past, there’s an 0-for-4. Instead, he turned it around and got two big hits.”
Williams will not be expected to become a savior for this current Phillies team. He cannot turn around this miserable 2017 season on his own.
What Williams does represent to long-suffering Phillies fans is hope. It marks another step forward in the rebuilding program. Hopefully he experiences some immediate and then sustained success. And hopefully his promotion is just the first of a few in the coming weeks.

Pharm Report: AA Reading Fightins

The Phillies ‘AA’ level minor league club, the Reading Fightin’ Phils, have bolted out to a first place lead in the Eastern Division of the Eastern League.
The Fightin’ Phils are 29-14, on a four game winning streak which has them 2.5 games up on the Hartford Yard Goats farm team of the Colorado Rockies organization.
This is the 50th anniversary of the Phillies relationship with the city of Reading, Pennsylvania, and the franchise is celebrating all year long with various events and giveaway items.
The timing couldn’t be better for the fans pouring into FirstEnergy Stadium. The Fightin’ Phils have a talented ball club with some exciting prospects.
Manager Dusty Wathan‘s squad just suffered a personnel loss, the type which minor league affiliate clubs are all too familiar with.
The Phillies top prospect, shortstop J.P. Crawford, began his season with Reading. Crawford was hitting .265 with a .398 on-base percentage, 23 runs scored, and five stolen bases when he was promoted over the weekend to the AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
Remaining at Reading to lead the offense are a trio of interesting hitters, the best of whom is catcher Jorge Alfaro.
The soon-to-be 23-year old Alfaro got off to a torrid start, but then missed a few weeks early on with an oblique injury. Since returning a couple of weeks ago he has continued to rake.
Over at TBOH we ranked Alfaro as the Phillies #6 prospect back in the preseason. He is hitting for a .348/.366/.517 slash line with seven doubles and 19 RBI in just 89 at-bats.
Right fielder Dylan Cozens will turn 22 years of age next week, and is having a true breakout season. He currently carries a .277/.350/.560 slash line, leads the club with 11 homers and 33 RBI, and is tied for the team lead with 29 runs scored.
23-year old 1st baseman Rhys Hoskins is hitting for a .272 average, seven home runs, and 26 RBI as he tries to show that he can be a legitimate piece of the Phillies rebuilding future plans.
Center field belongs to Roman Quinn, who came into the season as one of my personal favorite Phillies prospects. He possesses legitimately game-changing speed, and the thought of him roaming center at Citizens Bank Park and atop the Phils’ batting order had me salivating.
Quinn is hitting .255 with a .343 on-base percentage, and is tied for the team lead with 29 runs scored. His 19 stolen bases make him the club’s biggest baserunning threat by a wide margin.
A new element with the Fightin’ Phils, at least for a short time, will be rehabbing Phillies player Cody Asche, who just moved up after beginning his season with High-A Lakewood.
Big right-hander Ben Lively has been the leader of the Reading pitching staff. In his second season with the Phillies organization after coming over in trade from the Cincinnati Reds for Marlon Byrd.
Lively has been the Eastern League Pitcher of the Week, and was named to Baseball America’s April All-Prospect Team. The 24-year old is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA. He has allowed just 35 hits over 53 innings, with a 49/15 K:BB ratio.
Nick Pivetta is a 23-year old right-hander who came to the Phillies last year in the Jonathan Papelbon trade, and is really starting to come on strong.
Pivetta is 4-2 and has allowed just 36 hits over 44 innings with a 44/15 K:BB ratio. Over his last three starts, Pivetta has been white hot, winning all three with a 1.47 ERA and 20 strikeouts.
Anthony Vasquez is 6-2 with a 1.82 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. The 29-year old veteran has appeared in seven big league games, all back in 2011 with the Seattle Mariners.
Ricardo Pinto has allowed 43 hits over 45.1 innings with a 25/13 K:BB ratio. At 22 years of age, Pinto is highly considered by some in the organization, and is an arm to watch as the season moves along.
Severino Gonzalez is a 23-year old who made seven starts for the Phillies a year ago. He is being used exclusively out of the bullpen now, and has allowed nine hits in 10.2 innings with a 9/2 K:BB.
Another intriguing arm at Reading is 24-year old left-hander Tom Windle, who was another favorite of mine entering the season.
Windle came to the organization along with Zach Eflin in the Jimmy Rollins deal with the Dodgers back in the summer of 2014. The southpaw is struggling, however, having allowed 21 hits over 14 innings with a 16/6 K:BB.
FirstEnergy Stadium is located about 75-80 miles northwest of Philadelphia, and is about an hour and a half ride out I-76, just off PA Route 12. It is a gorgeous ballpark, and well worth the trip to watch some talented future Phillies perform.