Rosenthal: Phillies’ Joe Girardi is under scrutiny, but firing manager doesn’t solve their problems


Rosenthal: Phillies' Joe Girardi is under scrutiny, but firing manager doesn't solve their problems

As Phillies manager Joe Girardi faces questions from reporters about his job security, owner John Middleton and President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski must consider the following.

• Would Girardi’s move provoke cries of injustice from players, fans and the media? (Probably not.)

• Who would replace Girardi? (There is no obvious answer.)

• Would a new manager improve the team’s performance? (Not without better defense and relief pitching, and Dombrowski can’t snap his fingers and make those problems go away.)

Sometimes teams believe that change is necessary for change’s sake. The Phillies, seven games under .500 for the first time since the end of the 2017 season, could reach that point. The largest deficit a Phillies team could overcome en route to winning a division was 8 1/2 games in 2007. The current group, the product of a club-record $228.7 million, is 11 1/2 games behind.

The expansion of the postseason means all is not lost for a franchise trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the second-longest major drought. As the calendar moves into June, seven National League teams are likely to be contenders, leaving eight clubs in contention for six spots. The Phillies, while six games behind in the race for the third wild card, have been playing one of the toughest schedules in the majors. Your remaining schedule is one of the simplest.

So one view is that things can only get better, especially when four Phillies hitters — Nick Castellanos, Rhys Hoskins, JT Realmuto and Kyle Schwarber — fall short of expected levels compared to the rest of the league. All but Realmuto, who had the day off, hit home runs in Monday’s most recent disheartening loss for the Phillies, 5-4 to the Giants in 10 innings. But um, have you seen this team in action? The Phillies are who we thought they were. Only worse.

Back on March 21, just after Dombrowski expanded his collection of DHs by signing Schwarber and Castellanos, the athlete‘s Jayson Stark wrote a story entitled, “Can a team as defensively challenged as the Phillies win anything?” Dombrowski apparently thought so. His 2014 and 2013 Tigers teams made the playoffs despite being the third- and fourth-lowest teams since the metric was invented in 2003, according to Defensive Runs Saved.

The Phillies signed Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos prior to this season. (Dale Zanine / USA Today Sports)

By adding Schwarber and Castellanos to a club that finished bottom in the DRS last season, Dombrowski essentially took advantage of what the market offered, knowing he couldn’t fix his defense in one fell swoop. Middleton hired him in December 2020 to clean up the mess left behind by the team’s former GM Matt Klentak, and do it quickly. But when right fielder Bryce Harper, the Phillies’ top defensive outfielder, suffered a small tear to the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm, a dubious plan went even further awry.

Harper has not played on the field since April 16 and may not do so again until August, if at all this season. Schwarber and Castellanos occupy the outfield corners most days and it’s not a pretty sight. The midfield, on the other hand, is something of a black hole. The Phillies are 25th in the majors in fWAR from midfield, and the jury isn’t sure how much of a difference Monday’s promotion of former No. 1 overall winner Mickey Moniak will make.

The Phillies, in a rare burst of inspired play, won their season series from the Dodgers, four games to three. But they are bottom in DRS, bottom in Outs Above Average and 27th in defensive efficiency. And their revamped bullpen, which features jars of better stuff than in the past, has the highest walk rate in the majors. Even with an offense that ranks 11th in the majors in runs per game and an above-average rotation led by Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, the Phillies and their manager are in trouble.

Girardi can be relentlessly intense; It’s hard to imagine Phillies infielders teasing him during pitching changes like the Mets’ Francisco Lindor and Eduardo Escobar do with a manager who lightened things up, Buck Showalter. The Phillies didn’t exactly reassure Girardi by refusing to exercise his 2023 option, making this the final guaranteed year of his contract. A story in the Philadelphia Inquirer over the weekend cited several players questioning the team’s enthusiasm, which may have been a reflection of Girardi. It may also have been a reflection of the team’s frustration with the loss. Or both.

But even if Middleton and Dombrowski wanted to replace Girardi, their options would be limited. The team’s coaching staff includes bench coach Rob Thomson, who was interviewed for Girardi’s old job with the Yankees after the 2017 season; beating coach Kevin Long, who lost the Mets managerial job to Mickey Callaway during the same period; and third base coach Dusty Wathan, who managed 10 years for the Phillies in the minors. However, none of these three made it into the majors, nor would it be ideal to pair one with a relatively inexperienced pitching coach. Caleb Cotham is only in his sophomore year in the major leagues.

Dombrowski’s old associate, Jim Leyland? He is 77 years old, retired and most recently successful in the majors in 2013. Tony La Russa is also 77 and hadn’t made it since 2011 when the White Sox pulled him out of retirement last season. But at least La Russa had a full spring training session to learn their players and get up to speed on analytics. Leyland would join the Phillies in the middle of a season. It seems… a stretch.

Name a savvy current manager — Craig Counsell, Kevin Cash, Bob Melvin, any of them — and rest assured they’d fight in that Phillies outfit. Poor defense requires pitchers to throw extra pitches, allows opponents to take extra bases, and makes managers look particularly stupid. A case in point occurred Friday when Girardi started left-hander Bailey Falter in the first game of a series against the Mets so he could get some extra rest from some of his other starters.

Girardi’s argument was not far-fetched. The ranking indicated that the series was critical. The calendar indicated that this was not the case. Falter had performed well on a point start in Seattle on May 11, allowing a run in 4 2/3 innings. He was pitching for the first time in 10 days, but Girardi had other concerns.

Zach Eflin spent nine days on the COVID-19 injured list earlier this month, albeit with minimal symptoms. Wheeler, who missed a major league game in spring training because of pain in his right shoulder, had also missed time for the COVID IL. Kyle Gibson and Ranger Suárez both got away with sizeable pitch counts on multiple starts.

So instead of taking on the Mets with Eflin, Wheeler and Gibson, Girardi inserted Falter. His decision might have worked, but rookie shortstop Bryson Stott made an error in the first game of the game and the Mets took advantage of Castellanos by hitting two victim flies into center right field. Falter threw 32 pitches in the first inning. The Phillies ended up losing 8-6.

Girardi’s decision-making had also been called into question earlier in the week in Atlanta when he refused to field closer Corey Knebel or setup guys Jeurys Familia and Seranthony Dominguez after Harper hit a dramatic two-run shot against Kenley Jansen, to give the Phillies a 5-4 lead in the ninth. All three helpers are not available, said Girardi.

Knebel had served the last two days and Girardi doesn’t like using relievers three days in a row. The second excursion consisted of only nine pitches. But Knebel’s average fastball speed dropped from 95.5 mph on day one to 94.1 on day two. His pace had climbed back to 96 in the past two days — and, as on form for this Phillies season, he was allowing homers in the ninth inning in both games.

For both Falter and his helpers, Girardi put concerns about keeping his pitchers healthy over 162 games over the urgency of the situation. The Phillies could benefit from that over time, but their fans are understandably impatient, and Girardi’s occasional rigidity also drew criticism from him while he was with the Yankees. Then again, good luck button-pushing when each one is an electric shock waiting to be passed. The bullpen is largely of Dombrowski’s design, and as so often during his time with the Tigers, it’s proving his Achilles’ heel.

Dombrowski, who has signed until 2024, doesn’t need to fire Girardi to protect himself. He has the support of Middleton, who this spring enabled him to break the luxury tax threshold for the first time in team history with deals for Castellanos and Schwarber totaling $179 million. Dombrowski is also not one to make mid-season leadership changes. He hasn’t since 2002, when as Tigers president and CEO, he unseated general manager Randy Smith and manager Phil Garner 0-6 to become GM himself.

Girardi could certainly do certain things differently. If the Phillies fire him, well, such moves are hardly uncommon in this unforgiving sport. Still, a change of manager would do little, if anything, for this team. The problems with the 2022 Phillies aren’t subtle. And they don’t go away.

(Top Photo: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

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