With Phillies manager Joe Girardi facing questions from reporters about his job security, owner John Middleton and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski must consider the following.
• Would moving on from Girardi elicit howls of injustice from players, fans and media? (Probably not.)
• Who would replace Girardi? (There is no obvious answer.)
• Would a new manager improve the team’s performance? (Not without better defense and better relief pitching, and Dombrowski cannot snap his fingers and make those problems disappear.)
Sometimes teams believe change is necessary for change’s sake. The Phillies, seven games under .500 for the first time since the end of the 2017 season, might be reaching that point. The largest deficit a Phillies team has overcome to win a division was 8 1/2 games in 2007. The current group, the product of a club-record $228.7 million payroll, is 11 1/2 games back.
The expansion of the postseason means all is not lost for a franchise trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the second-longest drought in the majors. As the calendar turns to June, seven National League teams are likely pretenders, leaving eight clubs to battle for six spots. The Phillies, while six games back in the race for the third wild card, have played one of the toughest schedules in the majors. Their remaining schedule is one of the easiest.
So, one way to look at this is that things can only get better, particularly when four Phillies sluggers — Nick Castellanos, Rhys Hoskins, JT Realmuto and Kyle Schwarber — are not producing to their expected levels when compared to the rest of the league. All but Realmuto, who had the day off, hit home runs Monday in the Phillies’ latest dispiriting defeat, 5-4 to the Giants in 10 innings. But uh, have you seen this team in action? The Phillies are who we thought they were. Only worse.
Back on March 21, shortly after Dombrowski added to his collection of DHs by signing Schwarber and Castellanos, The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark wrote a story headlined, “Can a team as defensively challenged as the Phillies win anything?” Dombrowski obviously thought so. His 2014 and 2013 Tigers teams made the playoffs even though they were the third- and fourth-lowest-rated teams according to Defensive Runs Saved since the invention of the metric in 2003.
By adding Schwarber and Castellanos to a club that finished last in DRS last season, Dombrowski essentially was taking advantage of what the market offered, knowing he couldn’t fix his defense in one fell swoop. Middleton hired him in Dec. 2020 to clean up the mess left by the team’s previous GM, Matt Klentak, and to do it quickly. But when right fielder Bryce Harper, the Phillies’ best defensive outfielder, suffered a small tear to the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow, a dubious plan went even more awry.
Harper has not played the field since April 16, and might not again until August, if at all this season. Schwarber and Castellanos man the outfield corners most days, and it is not a pretty sight. Center field, meanwhile, is something of a black hole. The Phillies rank 25th in the majors in fWAR from center field, and the jury is out on how much of a difference Monday’s promotion of former No. 1 overall pick Mickey Moniak will make.
The Phillies, in a rare burst of inspired play, won their season series from the Dodgers, four games to three. But they are last in DRS, last in Outs above average and 27th in defensive efficiency. And their revamped bullpen, while featuring pitchers with better stuff than in the past, has the highest walk rate in the majors. So, even with an offense that ranks 11th in the majors in runs per game and an above-average rotation headed by Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, the Phillies and their manager are in crisis.
Girardi can be relentlessly intense; it’s difficult to imagine Phillies infielders teasing him during pitching changes the way the Mets’ Francisco Lindor and Eduardo Escobar do with a manager who has lightened up some, Buck Showalter. The Phillies have not exactly eased Girardi’s mind by declining to pick up his option for 2023, making this the last guaranteed year of his contract. A story in the Philadelphia Inquirer over the weekend quoted several players questioning the team’s enthusiasm, which might have been a reflection on Girardi. It might also have been a reflection on the team’s frustration with losing. Or both.
Yet, even if Middleton and Dombrowski wanted to replace Girardi, their options would be limited. The team’s coaching staff includes bench coach Rob Thomson, who interviewed for Girardi’s old job with the Yankees after the 2017 season; hitting coach Kevin Long, who lost the Mets’ managing job to Mickey Callaway during that same period; and third base coach Dusty Wathan, who managed 10 years for the Phillies in the minors. None of those three, however, has managed in the majors, and pairing one with a relatively inexperienced pitching coach also would not be ideal. Caleb Cotham is in only his second year running a major-league staff.
Dombrowski’s old associate, Jim Leyland? He’s 77, retired and last managed in the majors in 2013. Tony La Russa also is 77, and had not managed since 2011 when the White Sox brought him out of retirement last season. But La Russa, at least, had a full spring training to learn his players and get up to date on analytics. Leyland would be joining the Phillies in the middle of a season. It seems … a stretch.
Name an accomplished current manager — Craig Counsell, Kevin Cash, Bob Melvin, any of ’em — and rest assured they would struggle with this Phillies outfit. A poor defense requires pitchers to throw extra pitches, allows opponents to take extra bases and makes managers look extra dumb. A case in point occurred Friday, when Girardi started left-hander Bailey Falter in the first game of a series against the Mets so he could get some of his other starters additional rest.
Girardi’s reasoning was not unsound. The standings suggested the series was critical. The calendar suggested it was not. Falter had performed well in a spot start in Seattle on May 11, allowing one run in 4 2/3 innings. He was pitching for the first time in 10 days, but Girardi had other concerns.
Zach Eflin spent nine days on the COVID-19 injured list earlier this month, albeit with minimal symptoms. Wheeler, who did not pitch in a major-league game in spring training because of soreness in his right shoulder, also had missed time on the COVID IL. Kyle Gibson and Ranger Suárez both were coming off hefty pitch counts over multiple starts.
So, rather than go with Eflin, Wheeler and Gibson against the Mets, Girardi inserted Falter. His decision might have worked out, but rookie shortstop Bryson Stott made an error on the first play of the game and the Mets took advantage of Castellanos by scoring on two sacrifice flies to medium right field. Falter wound up throwing 32 pitches in the first inning. The Phillies wound up suffering an 8-6 defeat.
Girardi’s decision-making also had come into question in Atlanta earlier in the week, when he declined to use closer Corey Knebel or setup types Jeurys Familia and Seranthony Dominguez after Harper hit a dramatic two-run shot off Kenley Jansen to give the Phillies a 5 -4 lead in the ninth. All three relievers were unavailable, Girardi said.
Knebel had pitched the previous two days, and Girardi does not like using relievers three days in a row. True, the second outing consisted of only nine pitches. But Knebel’s average fastball velocity dropped from 95.5 mph on the first day to 94.1 the second. His velocity was back up to 96 the past two days — and true to form for this Phillies season, he allowed ninth-inning homers in both games.
Both with Falter and his relievers, Girardi prioritized concern for keeping his pitchers healthy over 162 games over the urgency of the situation. The Phillies might benefit over time, but their fans are understandably impatient and Girardi’s occasional rigidity also drew him criticism when he was with the Yankees. Then again, good luck pushing buttons when every one is an electric shock waiting to happen. The bullpen is largely of Dombrowski’s construction, and as often was the case in his days with the Tigers, it is proving his Achilles’.
Dombrowski, signed through 2024, does not need to fire Girardi to protect himself. He enjoys the support of Middleton, who allowed him this spring to exceed the luxury-tax threshold for the first time in team history with deals for Castellanos and Schwarber worth a combined $179 million. Dombrowski also is not one to make an in-season managerial change. He hasn’t done it since 2002, when, as president and CEO of the Tigers, he dumped general manager Randy Smith and manager Phil Garner at 0-6 and became GM himself.
Girardi surely could be doing certain things differently. If the Phillies fire him, well, such moves are hardly uncommon in this unforgiving sport. Still, changing managers would accomplish only so much for this team, if anything. The problems with the 2022 Phillies are not subtle. And they are not going away.
(Top photo: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)