With a postseason spot slipping away and the National League’s longest postseason drought in danger of being extended another year, the Philadelphia Phillies fired manager Joe Girardi on Friday. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said the team needs a “new voice in the clubhouse,” and so Girardi’s longtime bench coach Rob Thomson will take over interim manager. The Phillies have not been to the postseason since 2011.
“It has been a frustrating season for us up until this point, as we feel that our club has not played up to its capabilities,” Dombrowski said in a statement. “While all of us share the responsibility for the shortcomings, I felt that a change was needed and that a new voice in the clubhouse would give us the best chance to turn things around. I believe we have a talented group that can get back on track, and I am confident that Rob, with his experience and familiarity with our club, is the right man to lead us going forward.”
Girardi, who just days ago said he wasn’t worried about his job security, was not the problem with the Phillies, but he was part of the problem. His preference for veterans over young players, as well as his bullpen management, left a lot to be desired. There have also been rumblings Girardi’s intensity had worn down the clubhouse. Bottom line, the Phillies are full of bad vibes right now, and something had to give after the team racked up 12 losses over its last 17 games.
“There’s a number of reasons we didn’t win,” Girardi said during an MLB Network Radio interview Friday morning. “We gave too many extra outs that probably cost us four or five games, maybe even more. At times our bullpen struggled. We had some guys that have much better stuff than the potential that they pitched to, which led to some [blown] games. Some guys got off to slow starts offensively and that happens. I think you can overcome sometimes one thing, maybe even two, but sometimes when it’s more than that it’s somewhat difficult.”
At 22-29, the Phillies are 12 games behind the New York Mets in the NL East, and 5 1/2 games behind the third wild card spot with five teams ahead of them in the standings. The roster is loaded with veterans on long-term contracts, although those veterans are the reason the Phillies aren’t completely out of it. The farm system hasn’t produced much in recent years, so rebuilding doesn’t seem like viable path at the moment. The best option is to trudge ahead and hope to make a run at a postseason spot during the final two-thirds of the season.
What more can the Phillies do turn their season around now that Girardi has been fired? It won’t be easy given their current place in the standings and the square peg/round hole roster, but here are three paths forward.
1. Commit to Moniak and Stott
Earlier this week the Phillies lost second baseman Jean Segura to a broken finger that will sideline him 10-12 weeks, so a good chunk of the remaining season. That creates an opening on the infield even after shortstop Didi Gregorius, who hasn’t hit much since last season and is Girardi favorite dating back to their time together with the New York Yankees, returns from his knee issue in the coming days (Gregorius is currently on a minor league rehab assignment).
Girardi had a tendency to stick with veterans longer than he should and Segura’s absence creates a long-term opening at second base, where the options are utility man Johan Camargo, depth infielder Nick Maton, and top prospect Bryson Stott. Maton cut about 15 percentage points off his ground ball rate in Triple-A and is driving the ball more, though Stott is the organization’s top position player prospect, and this is the perfect opportunity to give him an extended run rather than take him in and out of the lineup.
Stott has not been good when he has played this year, but he’s never started more than three consecutive games, and the learning curve can be steep at the MLB level. Wander Franco had an adjustment period last year, and so did Julio Rodríguez and Bobby Witt Jr. this year. They started slow in April and then began to mash in May. Given where the Phillies are right now, they should give Stott the same runway to figure things out rather than bank on Camargo or Maton. Bet on the upside.
As for center field, Odúbel Herrera has played well enough this season, though his track record says his poor swing decisions won’t allow him to keep this up all year. Mickey Moniak, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, had a monster spring training (six homers in 14 games) and was poised to be the Opening Day center fielder before an errant pitch broke his wrist. He is healthy now and he rejoined the Phillies earlier this week. Moniak never did get an extended look under Girardi. Now’s the time do it.
Bottom line, we know what Camargo and Herrera are at this point in their careers, and that’s not a starting caliber player on a contending team. Moniak and Stott might not be either, but we don’t know that for certain yet, and they’re both young enough and talented enough to warrant long looks as the Phillies try to salvage their season. They can either maintain the status quo with Camargo and Herrera, or give the kids a chance. I know what I’d do.
2. Give Appel and Morales a shot
Once again, the bullpen is contributing to the downfall of the Phillies. The bullpen ranks dead last with minus-4.10 win probability added (the Miami Marlins are a distant second at minus-2.93) and they’ve been on a blown lead tour de force the last few weeks. Most notably, the bullpen blew a six-run lead in the ninth inning on May 5. It was as ugly as it gets.
It seems like every Dombrowski team is the same. They have a good offense (the Phillies are 11th in baseball with 4.51 runs scored per game) and a good rotation (3rd in MLB with 5.5 WAR), but a terrible defense (29th with minus-25 defensive runs saves) and an unreliable bullpen. That has been Dombrowski’s M.O. over the years and it is certainly true of the 2022 Phillies. They can only do so much to fix the defense, but the bullpen? They have options, specifically right-handers Mark Appel and Francisco Morales.
Appel, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, came out retirement last year and has pitched well enough in Triple-A, throwing 21.1 relief innings with a 2.11 ERA. He’s 30. If you’re not going to try Appel now, I’m not sure when you do. As for Morales, the 22-year-old spent some time with the big league team earlier this year, and while he’s had control issues (16 walks in 25 2/3 innings between MLB and the minors this year), he has a live arm that can miss bats. And you can never have enough relievers like that.
Philadelphia’s bullpen is built around veterans who are past their prime like Jeurys Familia, Brad Hand, and Corey Knebel, and also second tier guys who aren’t moving the needle much (if at all) like Nick Nelson and James Norwood. Given how those relievers have performed to date, there’s no reason to stick with this group. The team’s most reliable arm out of the pen this year has been Seranthony Domínguez, who’s in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, but outside of him the unit is not doing the job, so it’s time to find some guys who can.
To reach the postseason this year the Phillies will have to play at something close to a 95-win pace the rest of the season, and to do that, they’re going to have to catch some lightning in a bottle. Appel and Morales give the Phillies a chance to bottle lightning. And, if they come up and don’t perform, then the Phillies are right back where they started with an unreliable bullpen. Change for the sake of change isn’t always a great idea. But in this case, I think it’s warranted. Shake up that bullpen.
3. Scour the trade market
The 2021 Atlanta Braves are the blueprint. Atlanta was a handful of games under .500 in early June, just like the 2022 Phillies, then they lost their best player and MVP candidate Ronald Acuña Jr. to a season-ending knee injury right before the All-Star break. Bryce Harper, the reigning NL MVP, is still playing, though he has an elbow issue that limits him to DH because he can’t throw. The Braves were a middling, debilitated team in the middle of last season. The Phillies are much the same this season.
Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos responded to Acuña’s injury by knocking it out of the park at the trade deadline. Rather than make one or two headline-grabbing blockbusters, he made a series of smaller moves that added depth and diversity to the roster. Those trades brought in NLCS MVP Eddie Rosario and World Series MVP Jorge Soler, as well as platoon dynamos Joc Pederson and Adam Duvall. The Braves took on money to get those deals done, limiting the prospect capital they had to surrender.
The Phillies opened the season with a franchise record $228.7 million payroll. Their payroll for luxury tax purposes is $237.1 million. They’re already over the $230 million threshold, and there’s no sense in being just a little over the threshold. You’ve already lost the benefits of staying under, so just keep spending and get the help you need. Sure, you have to pay a little more luxury tax, but the Phillies can afford it. Add another $10 million in payroll and the tax is $2 million. That’s nothing to an MLB franchise.
Here, listed alphabetically, are a few possible rental trade targets should the Phillies decide to — and they should — follow the blueprint of the 2021 Braves and swing a series of smaller deals to improve the margins of the roster for a stretch run:
- RHP Steve Cishek, Nationals: Weak contact specialist (i.e. easier balls in play for the shaky defense) who has pitched in every role imaginable, and is especially tough on righties. Making $1.75 million in 2022.
- SS Jose Iglesias, Rockies: Contact-oriented bat with strong defensive chops at shortstop. He’s an upgrade over the current version of Gregorius despite making a fraction of the salary. Making $5 million in 2022.
- OF Jake Marisnick, Pirates: An elite defensive outfielder with a history of holding his own against lefty pitching. He’d cover some of the ground given up by Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber in the corners. Making $1.3 million in 2022.
- RHP David Robertson, Cubs: I get the Phillies may not be interested in a reunion, but Robertson is still a strikeout artist (i.e. fewer balls in play for the shaky defense) and a versatile reliever who can pitch in any role. Making $3.5 million in 2022.
Hypothetically, if the Phillies acquire those four right at the trade deadline, they would absorb about $4 million in salary and luxury tax obligation, and will have upgraded their defense up the middle and bullpen. It shouldn’t require surrendering many prospects either. Taking a big swing at the deadline and adding a star seems unlikely. The next best thing is making as many upgrades to the margins of the roster as possible. Any little upgrade is worth it given the uphill climb the Phillies are facing.
Looking over the state of the Phillies organization (the contracts on the books, the farm system, the competition in the NL East, etc.), it’s really hard to not be discouraged about their long-term outlook. They don’t appear to be a quick fix away from being a legitimate World Series contender, and the veterans they have will be tough to trade for value to kick start a rebuild. Truth be told, 2022 might be their best chance to reach the postseason for the foreseeable future.
Giving more playing time to Moniak and Stott, trying Appel and Morales in the bullpen, and making sensible lower profile moves at the trade deadline isn’t enough to save Philadelphia’s season. More than anything, they need the players already on the roster to perform better. If that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter how much they rearrange the furniture. Girardi wasn’t the problem, but he wasn’t part of the solution either. Not enough solutions may exist to fix the 2022 Phillies, but Dombrowski & Co. have to try.