Firing Charlie Manuel Won’t Help the Phillies
When a baseball team opens the season with a stumble and a cough, as the Phillies have done in 2013, there is a temptation to blame the manager. But when it appears as if that stagger has little chance of morphing into a full gallop, it can’t possibly be the skipper’s fault. In the case of the home nine, it most certainly isn’t.
It’s easy—and often accurate—to take shots at Manuel’s strategic acumen. His foibles have been well documented throughout his Philadelphia tenure. But his one strength as a manager has been his ability to keep a group of veteran players focused and performing. Since the core of the lineup is the same as it has been for several seasons, the problem is not in Manuel’s message but in the talent at his disposal.
There isn’t enough of it. And that is not the manager’s fault.
Charlie Manuel could be Sparky Anderson, and it wouldn’t matter. He could be Tony LaRussa, John J. McGraw and Connie Mack rolled into one, and the Phillies wouldn’t be playing any better. They simply don’t have enough talent. Their curious mix of over-the-hill vets and overmatched kids would be no more successful under Joe Torre’s steady hand than under Manuel’s. And now that Roy Halladay has headed to the DL with shoulder soreness, the pitching staff is in deep trouble. (It was already in deep trouble before Doc’s arm flared up.) It’s time to see whether Kyle Kendrick can throw every third day.
If GM Ruben Amaro fires Manuel before the season is over, it will be a classic example of a boss blaming a subordinate for his mistakes. It happens in football all the time. A team struggles, so the head coach dumps his coordinators in an attempt to get “new thinking” into the staff—and make it look like it’s somebody else’s fault. In the past three years, the Phillies have done that by sacrificing hitting coaches Greg Gross and Milt Thompson, neither of whom could stop Jimmy Rollins from swinging for the fences, teach Ryan Howard to take the outside pitch to left, or cure the team’s propensity for piling up ugly at bats.
Before this season, we heard that new hitting coaches Steve Henderson and Wally Joyner would bring a new approach to the team. Well, let’s see how that’s going. The Phillies are 25th in the majors in batting average, 25th in walks, 27th in on-base percentage and slugging percentage and 28th in OPS (on-base plus slugging) percentage. And guess what? None of that is Henderson and Joyner’s fault. It isn’t Manuel’s fault, either. It’s the fault of the man who assembled a roster filled with position players who are impatient and stubborn.
That would be Amaro. He’s the one who bestowed the $125 million contract on Ryan Howard, who ranks 70th in OPS and 47th in slugging. Howard’s on pace to hit about 25 homers and walk only 30 times. Amaro is the one who brought in Ben Revere, even though his career OBP (.313) and slugging percentage (.314) are awful. He’s the one who imported Michael “Mr. Single” Young, who is on pace to knock in 30 runs this year and compile 25 extra-base hits. And he’s the one who decided a three-year contract (with an easily attainable fourth season) was a good idea for Jimmy Rollins, who had no other long-term suitors, and whose 2013 .302 OBP is the second-lowest among Phillies regulars. Finally, when Amaro turns 75, he’ll be waiting still for John Mayberry Jr. to become a legitimate major-league outfielder.
I haven’t even started on the team’s pitching, which is 26th in the majors in ERA.
While the fans fume at the Phillies’ inept play, Amaro’s superiors are no doubt thrilled he kept the team under the luxury tax this season. Of course, watching about 7,000 fewer fans than last year show up at the ballpark every night is the price for such savings, but the ownership gang doesn’t seem to mind that.
It also doesn’t seem to mind that the Phillies are one of the least enthusiastic teams in baseball regarding the use of advanced metrics. It wouldn’t be a bit surprising if Amaro tries to hire Clint Eastwood’s Gus Lobel character from Trouble With the Curve, because he specializes in “hearing” when a player can get the job done. There’s a reason the Phillies have the 24th-rated farm system, according to Baseball America, and it’s not just Amaro’s propensity over the past couple years to ship away prospects.
Put it all together and it adds up to one thing: Blaming Charlie Manuel for the Phillies’ slow start is foolish. This is a highly flawed team that lacks punch and reliable pitching. That isn’t Manuel’s fault. The Phils begin a seven-game West Coast road trip Monday that could push them further into their early hole. If the verdict from such a rotten sojourn is a thumbs-down on Manuel, then he will have been sacrificed to protect others, not because he didn’t do a good job.
• Those of you interested in getting Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and his new bride, Tina Lai, a wedding present should know that they are registered at Free Agents ‘R’ Us and would love a safety who doesn’t get burned on long balls or a wide receiver capable of outdueling a cornerback in the red zone.
• Three cheers for Jason Collins, the first player in team sports history to come out as a gay man. His courage should be an inspiration to all. Let’s hope that in the near future, a person’s sexual orientation won’t matter one bit, and he will be judged exclusively on whether he can get the job done.
• With the Sixers and Flyers idle, and the Phillies in full sag, it shapes up to be a pretty quiet couple of months for Philadelphia sports fans. Perhaps we could petition the NFL to let the Eagles open training camp early. There’s no guarantee the Birds will be any better than their forlorn professional compadres, but at least we’ll have something interesting to talk about.