The Phillies Fire Their Manager, but Their Flaws Run Deeper
For Philadelphia fans disappointed by the 76ers, who followed years of N.B.A. failure with only muted success, the Phillies have a message: Hold my Yuengling.
This was supposed to be winning time at Citizens Bank Park, but on Friday the Phillies conceded the disaster their season has become and fired Manager Joe Girardi. The 76ers never make it very far in the N.B.A. postseason, but at least they get there. The Phillies seem headed for their 11th season in a row without making the playoffs, a stretch that includes just one winning record.
That was last season, and it just barely qualified, at 82-80. The team’s owner, John Middleton, reinvested in the roster by signing Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber, pushing past the league’s luxury tax threshold for a club-record $228.7 million payroll, fourth highest in the majors.
Yet the Phillies were 22-29 when Dave Dombrowski, the president of baseball operations, fired Girardi Friday morning. Even the cross-state Pittsburgh Pirates, mired in a long rebuilding project with a meager $55.7 million payroll, had a better record.
“I think we’re better than what we’ve played,” Dombrowski said at a news conference in Philadelphia. “But to me, the most important part, if we’re going to turn this around, and I think we still have the capabilities to do it — I think we needed a different voice in the clubhouse.”
The Phillies appointed Girardi’s bench coach, Rob Thomson, to be the team’s interim manager for the rest of the season. Thomson, like Girardi, has deep roots in the Yankees organization and was part of the staff that beat the Phillies in the 2009 World Series. He will be the Phillies’ sixth manager during their postseason drought, which is the longest in the National League.
“There’s a number of reasons we didn’t win,” Girardi said Friday, in his weekly segment on MLB Network Radio. “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 I think have much better stuff than the potential that they’ve pitched to. And some guys got off to some slow starts offensively.
“And that happens, right? But I think you can overcome sometimes one thing, maybe even two. But sometimes when it’s more than that, it’s somewhat difficult.”
Somewhat is an understatement. Through 50 games, the Phillies ranked last in the majors in defensive runs saved, according to Sports Info Solutions. Through Thursday, their relievers had issued 93 walks in 180 innings, compared to 73 walks in 273 innings for their starters. And only one everyday player, Bryce Harper, had an on-base percentage of .325 or better.
The Phillies knew they would not have a strong defense but had hoped that a brawny offense could mask that deficiency. When they signed the slugging outfielders Castellanos (five years, $100 million) and Schwarber (four years, $79 million), they hoped to use the designated hitter spot to keep one or the other off the field for most games.
But a ligament tear in Harper’s right elbow has forced him to be a full-time D.H., and Castellanos and Schwarber have not hit enough to be much help. Several returning position players — Alec Bohm, Odubel Herrera, Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto — have been mediocre at best.
“I take responsibility when the club is playing this way; we all take responsibility,” Dombrowski said. “I think the players take responsibility, too. I know they’re not happy with what’s taken place. I do think we’re a better club than this.”
They should be, at least. When the core of their 2008 championship team crumbled, the Phillies planned to follow a modern blueprint for building a winner: They would weather some rough years and build a dynamic farm system, then promote top prospects and complement them with high-priced stars.
Along the way, they have fired General Manager Matt Klentak and the manager he hired, Gabe Kapler, replacing them with Dombrowski and Girardi, both well-known commodities with championship pedigrees. They were reassuring hires; by winning before, the thinking went, they would know how to do it again.
But the Phillies’ flaws ran deep. They held a top-10 pick in five consecutive drafts, from 2014 through 2018, and uncovered just one player, starter Aaron Nola, who has made a major impact. Dombrowski, who was hired in December 2020, overhauled the team’s player-development staff last September.
Harper and starter Zack Wheeler have been wise investments, and Realmuto — acquired from Miami in a trade, then signed to a long-term contract — has made two All-Star teams for the Phillies. But without a pipeline of cheap, young players who would get better with time, the Phillies have been forced to continue importing expensive veterans.
That is often a dubious strategy, because many players with enough service time to command high salaries have often already peaked. Older teams can win, as Girardi’s Yankees did in 2009. But that roster was packed with players worthy of Hall of Fame consideration; this Phillies roster is much weaker.
Girardi, then, could only do so much. His Yankees teams, collectively, had 200 more victories than losses — 910-710. But Girardi’s three Phillies teams went 132-141, a stressful and unfulfilling stay in a demanding sports town. As Girardi packed his office late Friday morning, Dombrowski said, Middleton and others sensed a shift in his mood.
“By the end, he was in a much more relieved state, I would say,” Dombrowski said. “The pressure was off his back.”