As Phillies manager Joe Girardi faces questions from reporters about his job security, owner John Middleton and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski must consider the following.
• Would Girardi’s departure provoke howls of injustice from players, fans and the media? (Probably not.)
• Who would replace Girardi? (There is no obvious answer.)
• Would a new manager improve team performance? (Not without better defense and better relief throwing, and Dombrowski can’t snap his fingers and make those problems go away.)
Sometimes teams think change is necessary for change. The Phillies, seven games under .500 for the first time since the end of the 2017 season, could reach that point. The biggest deficit a Phillies team has overcome to win a division was 8½ games in 2007. The current squad, the product of a record $228.7 million payroll, is 11 games away and half back.
The playoff expansion means all is not lost for a franchise trying to qualify for 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 contenders, leaving eight clubs battling for six spots. The Phillies, while there are six return games in the race for the third joker, 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, especially when four Phillies sluggers – Nick Castellanos, Rhys Hoskins, JT Realmuto and Kyle Schwarber – aren’t producing at their expected levels compared to the rest of the league. All but Realmuto, who had the day off, homered Monday in the Phillies’ last disheartening 5-4 loss to the Giants in 10 innings. But uh, have you seen this team in action? The Phillies are what we thought they were. Only worse.
Returning on March 21, shortly after Dombrowski added to his DH collection by signing Schwarber and Castellanos, Athleticism‘s Jayson Stark wrote a story called “Can a team as defensively challenged as the Phillies win anything?” Dombrowski obviously thought so. His 2014 and 2013 Tigers teams made the playoffs despite being the third and fourth lowest-rated teams according to Defensive Runs Saved since the metric was invented in 2003.
Adding Schwarber and Castellanos to a club that finished bottom of the DRS last season, Dombrowski was essentially taking advantage of what the market was offering, knowing he couldn’t fix his defense all at once. Middleton hired him in December 2020 to clean up the mess left behind by the team’s former general manager, Matt Klentak, and do it quickly. But when right fielder Bryce Harper, the Phillies’ top defensive outfielder, suffered a small tear to the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow, a questionable plan went even worse.
Harper hasn’t played on the court since April 16 and may not do so until August, if at all this season. Schwarber and Castellanos occupy the outside corners almost every day, and it’s not a pretty sight. The central field, on the other hand, looks like a black hole. The Phillies rank 25th in the fWAR majors from center field, and the jury is out on how much of a difference Monday’s promotion of former No. 1 pick Mickey Moniak will make.
The Phillies, in a rare burst of inspired play, won their season series against 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 points per game and an above-average rotation led by Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, the Phillies and their manager are in crisis.
Girardi can be relentlessly intense; it’s hard to imagine Phillies infielders teasing him during pitching changes the way the Mets’ Francisco Lindor and Eduardo Escobar do with a manager who relieved some of them, Buck Showalter. The Phillies didn’t quite ease Girardi’s spirit by refusing to take his option for 2023, making it the last guaranteed year of his contract. A story in the Philadelphia Inquirer over the weekend cited several players questioning the team’s enthusiasm, which may have been a reflection on Girardi. It could also be a reflection on the team’s frustration with the loss. Or both.
Still, 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 former job with the Yankees after the 2017 season; hitting coach Kevin Long, who lost the job of Mets manager to Mickey Callaway during the same period; and third base coach Dusty Wathan, who coached 10 years for the Phillies underage. None of those three, however, made it to the majors, and pairing one with a relatively inexperienced pitching coach wouldn’t be ideal either. Caleb Cotham is only in his second year at the helm of a major league team.
Dombrowski’s former partner, Jim Leyland? He’s 77, retired and was last managed in the majors in 2013. Tony La Russa is also 77 and hadn’t made it since 2011 when the White Sox brought him out of retirement last season. But La Russa, at least, had full spring training to learn their players and get up to speed on analytics. Leyland would join the Phillies midway through a season. It seems… exaggerated.
Name an accomplished current manager — Craig Counsell, Kevin Cash, Bob Melvin, any of them — and rest assured they’d struggle with this Phillies outfit. Bad defense forces pitchers to throw extra pitches, allows opponents to take extra bases, and makes managers even dumber. One example occurred on Friday, when Girardi threw left-hander Bailey Falter in Game 1 of a series against the Mets so he could get some extra rest for some of his other starters.
Girardi’s reasoning was not wrong. The rating suggested the series was critical. The calendar suggested not. Falter had performed well in a spot start in Seattle on May 11, allowing a run in 4 2/3 innings. He was pitching for the first time in 10 days, but Girardi had other worries.
Zach Eflin spent nine days on the COVID-19 injured list earlier this month, but with minimal symptoms. Wheeler, who sat out a major league game during spring training due to right shoulder pain, had also missed time on COVID IL. Kyle Gibson and Ranger Suárez both had a significant number of pitches over multiple starts.
So rather than go with Eflin, Wheeler and Gibson against the Mets, Girardi inserted Falter. His decision might have worked, but rookie shortstop Bryson Stott erred on the first play of the game and the Mets took advantage of Castellanos by scoring on two sacrificial flies to middle right field. Falter ended up throwing 32 pitches in the first inning. The Phillies suffered an 8-6 loss.
Girardi’s decision-making was also called into question in Atlanta earlier in the week, when he refused to use closer Corey Knebel or setup types Jeurys Familia and Seranthony Dominguez after Harper hit a dramatic shot two-pointer over 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 doesn’t like using relievers three days in a row. Admittedly, the second outing only included nine pitches. But Knebel’s average fastball speed went from 95.5 mph on day one to 94.1 on day two. His speed has rebounded to 96 over the past two days — and true to his form for this Phillies season, he’s allowed ninth-inning homers in both games.
With Falter and his relievers, Girardi prioritized concern about keeping his pitchers healthy for 162 games over the urgency of the situation. The Phillies might enjoy that over time, but their fans are understandably impatient, and Girardi’s occasional stickiness also earned him criticism when he was with the Yankees. Again, good luck pressing the buttons when everyone’s electric shock waiting to happen. The bullpen is largely Dombrowski-built, and as was often the case in his time with the Tigers, he proves his Achilles.
Dombrowski, signed until 2024, doesn’t need to fire Girardi to protect himself. He has the backing of Middleton, who this spring saw him break the luxury tax threshold for the first time in team history with deals for Castellanos and Schwarber worth a combined $179 million. dollars. Dombrowski is also not one to make a mid-season change of direction. He hasn’t 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 general manager himself.
Surely Girardi could do some things differently. If the Phillies saw him, well, such moves are hardly uncommon in this ruthless sport. Still, changing managers wouldn’t accomplish much for this team, if anything. The issues with the 2022 Phillies aren’t subtle. And they don’t go away.
(Top photo: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)