Kevin Cooney: With next Phillies GM, Middleton must avoid the same mistakes he made with Klentak

Despite what you may hear on your favorite sports talk radio station, John MIddleton does drive with a passion to bring his “damn trophy back.” That’s not a phony act in the least as any organizational staffer could tell you over the years.

But as he admitted on Saturday — in a 29 minute zoom call to explain the “stepping down” of Matt Klentak as Phillies general manager — there’s one big hurdle in that plan.

“One of the problems that I have and most owners have is we’re not baseball people,” Middleton said “I wasn’t a scout. … So if you are talking making an evaluation on something, you listen to the baseball people and let them guide you.” 

The problem for John Middleton is that his baseball people failed him in almost every way over the past five years. Combine that with his own urge to use his money to jumpstart a process that wasn’t ready and you are left with a heaping helping of mediocrity.

The easy thing is to listen to Middleton talk, yell that he’s cheap because J.T Realmuto will likely have a change of address form to the post office by Christmas and wonder if he sold the public a bill of goods of being this “damn the torpedoes” owner.

However, that’s a flawed judgment as well. Owners can get things wrong. The key is, can they figure out how to get it right? That’s where the test lies for Middleton over the next few months. The instinct is that his heart is in the right place, but he has to find the right people first.

With that as the backdrop, let’s get a few things clear. First, Middleton kept team president Andy MacPhail and seemed to indicate that the former Twins/Cubs general manager will have a bigger say in the baseball side of the business for the time being. In reality, that’s what MacPhail should have been doing all along because – well, nobody seemed to have an idea on what he was doing anyway.

The delegating to Klentak by MacPhail went too far and Middleton seemed to indirectly indicate that on Saturday. MacPhail was the adult in the room who had two World Series rings. Letting Klentak go unchallenged in his decisions – giving Pete Mackanin a contract extension before firing him that same year, sticking with Gabe Kapler, deciding this bullpen as good enough — was baseball malpractice.

Still, MacPhail — with one year left on his contract and 68 years old around Opening Day 2021 — is here to oversee what could be a brutal organizational winter with personnel cuts from buyouts and layoffs likely due to COVID-19 financial impacts. Someone has to handle that portion of the job and interview potential baseball operations candidates. If the Phillies find one person who would be a natural replacement for MacPhail and could run the bulk of the baseball side of things, it is likely that MacPhail will be gone too.

That brings us to the second point: it isn’t a guarantee that hire will be here quick. Middleton stressed that with the potential of in-person interviews and interaction being limited this off-season, it is entirely possible that MacPhail and interim GM Ned Rice – who was Klentak’s sounding board and right-hand man as assistant GM — could handle 2021.

“We’re going to have to be flexible and nimble,” Middleton said. “We’ll see. Who knows how COVID will play in potential candidates mind. Will they say, ‘I’m going to be conservative and stay where I am?’ Or will they say, ‘I’ll take this new job?’ Who knows?”

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But when he does eventually get his new baseball minds into place, Middleton must sit down with them and agree on a Phillies organizational philosophy. Philadelphia has appeared scattershot in a way — wanting to play in the big pool for Bryce Harper and signing an overpay contract to Jake Arrieta to accelerate contention while realizing that you can only do that if the minor leagues allow for organizational depth.

The baseball ops blueprint seemed specifically scattershot. One minute, it’s “time to play October baseball.” Another moment, it’s “We were not really ready to make that step.” What that ends up doing is creating an added level of frustration when the crap hits the fan with a ton of money flushed down the drain.


MORE: Cooney: Who will take blame for Phillies’ September disaster?


Take a look at Middleton’s comments Saturday when it comes to the Realmuto trade two winters ago that resulted in the packaging of top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez to Miami. Realmuto had two years of team control left at the time Klentak made the deal.

“The fact of the matter is that at the time it was being considered, my position was that I would be willing to trade Sixto, as long as you extend (Realmuto),” Middleton said. “If we don’t extend J.T., I wouldn’t trade Sixto because we weren’t at a point in the development of the team where the benefits of what we were getting would match what we are giving up.”

Remember, this was the time the Phillies were openly courting Harper and Manny Machado, who ended up in San Diego, with the concept they were ready to go win. This is also the time they gave $50 million to a 32 year old outfielder (Andrew McCutchen) that most believed was likely not an everyday player anymore.

Nobody at that moment was rushing to throw the brakes on anything because the town was fired up about the excitement the club was building and the tickets/uniforms they were selling. But it’s mixed messages that end up being the biggest problem. And that’s what apparently the Phillies realized they have been sending.

If you are going all in, then do it the whole damn way. Sign Realmuto’s extension at the first moment his plane lands in Clearwater. If you aren’t ready to do that, you don’t make the trade. Otherwise, don’t get too cute. That’s what Klentak and company did, ending up with the best catcher in baseball likely walking away after two years while facing a half-decade of Sanchez haunting them in Miami.

Does this all fall on Middleton as the owner? Of course. He’s the one who hired these guys, trying to set a new course for a franchise that in 2015 had become stagnant as the Glory Days after the 2007-2011 run ended. Flat out, he hired the wrong guys.

There’s no doubt in my mind that John Middleton wants to win. The problem is – he hasn’t figured out how to just yet. And the best way he can is to make sure he actually hires people who do.


Kevin hosts the “Working The Beat” podcast with Mike Kern, available on iTunes, Google Play and everywhere podcasts are heard. A regular on WIP, Kevin loves to interact with readers on Twitter. Follow him there at @KevinCooney.

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