Will the Phillies' Rookie Manager Allow His Team to Win?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this city trusts the process.
By Matt Foley
“Jake Arrieta is now available to address the media in the home locker room,” the loudspeaker booms.
The voice is that of a Phillies communications assistant, but the reporters scamper toward the stairwell as though it were the Great and Powerful Oz speaking.
It’s been six years since Philadelphia’s baseball club commanded this much interest. After five straight postseason appearances and a 2008 World Series title, the team proceeded to lose for five consecutive seasons. But after the offseason signings of the 2016 National League Cy Young winner, Arrieta, and first baseman Carlos Santana, and the faster-than-expected ascension of a young core of top prospects, the Phillies look ready to field a competitive club for the first time in years. This could be the year the Phillies learn how to win again — as long as their radical rookie coach can stave off an uprising.
In baseball, championship windows emerge at a moment’s notice. Take the 2015 Chicago Cubs, for example, who went from bottom dwellers to World Series contenders before winning it all the following season. These Phillies aren’t as far along yet, but no one expected Chicago’s quick turnaround either. In hindsight, it seems simple. One key addition for the Cubs was that of manager Joe Maddon, whose eccentric, player-friendly approach instilled confidence and joy in a clubhouse that had clearly felt the weight of a frustrated fan base. Today’s mood in Philadelphia is not much different. Yes, the Eagles’ recent Super Bowl victory alleviated some of the pressure, but there’s a growing sense that the Phillies have become irrelevant. “People lost interest,” says lifelong Phillies fan Brendan Scannell. “The team needed a shake-up.”
Because of Kapler’s unorthodox approach, Neshak and Arrieta may be the team’s most important players this season.
Gabe Kapler, 42, a 12-year MLB veteran, has been brought in to do things differently from any Phillies manager before him. He’s a progressive, a devotee of sabermetrics and a proponent of holistic wellness. Kapler has already bucked the norm, shuffling position players around the lineup at a frenetic pace and generally pissing off a lot of people — fans, media and players alike. In the season-opening series against Atlanta, only Santana and star slugger Rhys Hoskins started three games at the same position. A few brutal bullpen blunders were an early eyesore, and Kapler’s choice to bench Odubel Herrera — the team’s best player the past three seasons — on opening day is the type of decision that can break a clubhouse. But through all the criticism, Kapler preaches positivity, open communication and a ferocious work ethic. “We will not get out-prepared or outworked,” says Kapler. “The one thing this team will do is fight.”
It’s still too early to second-guess Kapler’s alternative approach, but he needs to close ranks and build clubhouse camaraderie for any chance at sustained success. Herrera may not appreciate the early demotion, but Kapler appears keen on developing a deep stable of young position players through equal opportunity. Young talent is one thing that the Phillies have in spades, and when it comes time to actually contend for a championship, experience will prove vital.
One player who made the most of his MLB experience last season was Hoskins. The 25-year-old former fifth-round pick burst onto the scene after an August call-up, launching 18 home runs to go with 48 RBIs in 50 games. He’s a natural at the plate, terrorizing pitchers both with his power and his ability to work deep counts. But what Kapler likes best is Hoskins’ intangibles. “He’s a young leader,” says Kapler. “Very much like [Arrieta], carries himself with high energy and integrity.”
And more young prospects have emerged to help Hoskins carry the load. Shortstop J.P. Crawford brings Gold Glove–caliber potential to the defense, and rookie infielder Scott Kingery — who forced his way onto the MLB roster with an exceptional spring — looks to be Philadelphia’s second baseman of the future. That trio, plus outfielders Herrera, Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr, will experience growing pains this season, but they give Kapler a versatile young core to develop.
“It started with signing Carlos Santana,” says Hoskins about when it looked like this team was coming together. “Then [general manager Matt Klentak] added our two bullpen pieces [Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter], and obviously Arrieta was huge.”
Because of Kapler’s unorthodox approach, Neshek and Arrieta may be the team’s most important players this season. Neshek, the team’s lone All-Star last season, almost signed elsewhere in free agency because of an uncomfortable clubhouse environment in 2017. “It wasn’t a conducive environment for communication,” Neshek told The Morning Call last month. “Nobody talked.” But the managerial change convinced the reliever to stick around. And in Arrieta, Kapler manages one of the most notorious workers in MLB. Arrieta transformed his body, mind and career while pitching in Chicago. Philadelphia’s plan is for that attitude to rub off on young pitchers like Aaron Nola and Nick Pivetta. “Jake is an extraordinary example for our young men,” says Kapler. “These guys will follow him.”
In the NL East, where the only given is that Washington will contend for a playoff spot, Philadelphia could make a run at a wild-card berth. Kapler has said all of the right things, but he hasn’t yet earned the trust of his clubhouse or the respect that a veteran manager like Maddon commands. That will take time. For now, it’s time for the Phils to phight.