Four games ago, things were looking up for the Philadelphia Phillies. The team was riding a 6-game win streak, their longest of the season. Domonic Brown was coming off being named NL Player of the Month and showed no signs of slowing down moving into June. The pitching staff, without the services of Roy Halladay, had proved sufficient enough to keep the team in games while the offense started to come alive. Unsung players such as Erik Kratz, Cesar Hernandez, and Freddy Galvis were filling in admirably for injured veterans Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz. Manager Charlie Manuel, who is currently in the last year of his contract, appeared to be pushing the right buttons to keep the team afloat long enough to see the return of injured veterans and the potential reinforcement of new talent at the trade deadline. Following a series-opening win against the Milwaukee Brewers, highlighted by an impressive performance by Tyler Cloyd (another welcome surprise) the Phillies were cruising, leading 4-0 with Cliff Lee on the hill. For those who have not had the pleasure of being a Phillies fan for the last few years, four-run leads and Cliff Lee often bring up nightmarish memories (see 2011 NLDS). The team went on to blow the lead to the Brewers, falling by a score of 5-4. Since then, they dropped the latter half of the 4-game set in Milwaukee and started their road series against the Twins with an uninspired, 3-2 loss, once again wasting a quality start by Cole Hamels. Philadelphia fell to three games under .500 and their hole in the division continues to deepen.
What makes matters worse is the teams ever-growing list of players suffering from injuries. Catcher Erik Kratz was placed on the disabled list following a difficult-to-watch knee injury suffered in the Milwaukee series. Free agent set-up man and prized offseason acquisition Mike Adams velocity continues to plummet and the once-dominant 8th-inning man has become as undependable as the rest of the hapless bullpen. Nobody knows when Chase Utley will be healthy enough to return and it is becoming more and more difficult to picture the team competing for a playoff spot.
The Phillies organization is in an incredibly unenviable situation. Their beloved core that brought home the 2008 World Series have come out of their prime much faster than one would imagine. While most players in their low 30s can sustain a high level of play and sustain a contender, the collection of: Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, and Jimmy Rollins have all seen their games nosedive dramatically and suddenly. One could list off any amount of statistics to try to paint a less-than-bleak picture of the team’s situation. The notion that the roster, one that has excelled in the second half of seasons traditionally, has one of their late-season runs in them is ignorant at this point and the writing on the wall has never been more evident. With the exception of Brown, a player that if given a fair shot 2-3 seasons ago could have been the spark the aging core needed, there is very little to feel good about with the Phillies.
When it is all said and done, I expect the failures of the organization to sustain their elite-level success to be put on General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr., the way the professional sports business works makes it much more difficult to oust upper-level management than an aging manager in the last year of his contract. With that in mind, it is time to embrace the near-inevitable with the Phillies: a sweep at the hands of the Twins should mark the end of the Charlie Manuel Era.
Manuel is as beloved a manager as a baseball fan can imagine. He loves baseball, he stands by his team, he stands by his decisions, and he does not overreact to small sample sizes. When the organization hired Manuel, it was going to be his job to turn their budding core of talented players into a champion. With the assistance of Pat Gillick’s supplementing of the roster and Manuel’s teaching, the Phillies fielded one of the most impressive lineups in baseball and delivered the championship that the city had been waiting for. Unfortunately, the nature of living in a sports town like Philadelphia brings upon exceeded expectations. The Phillies roster was as impressive as any champion in the last decade and the thought was that they were to contend for, and win, multiple titles. Even their World Series loss to the Yankees did not stifle the hopes of Philadelphians, as pundits argued that a more committed Cole Hamels, or any other high-end starter, would be enough to bring the team another ring.
Two gut-wrenching playoff losses and an excruciating 2012 season, the first in five the team failed to reach the postseason, later the idea of the Phillies as a World Series contender has become a faint afterthought. The organizations insistence that adding that ‘one piece’ to the roster would put them over the hump has blown up in their face, as most of their acquisitions have either been dealt for spare parts or aged beyond their prime. The farm system, while slowly improving, has not bolstered a top-flight talent since Domonic Brown, a player the organization probably did not show adequate patience with. What has made matters worst is that the two teams ahead of the Phillies in the NL East: the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals, boast some of the sport’s top, young talent and appear to be contenders for the next decade.
Meanwhile, the once lovable, good ole’ boy personality of Charlie Manuel has worn thin on restless Phillies fans as the team shuffles around the .500 mark, failing to show the sort of consistency that had them run away with division titles in year’s past. While Amaro Jr. will be the name on the ledger regarding all of the team’s roster moves, Manuel was ‘the man’ in the Phillies organization and the team shows no signs of regaining their championship form. Headlines regarding the team have gone from individual honors and franchise records broken, to trade rumors and complaints surrounding the team’s sputtering superstars. While I do believe the organization holds Manuel in the highest of regards as a manager and a baseball mind, the pressure continues to mount for a restart to the franchise and, unfortunately for Manuel, that might mean cutting ties with the skipper.
While Charlie has usually maintained an even-keel in his media appearances, never ranging too far in one direction, his latest appearances have started to show the effects that the team’s lack of success are having on him. There is almost an inevitability regarding the bleak future of the team. The talks of ‘turning things around’ have fallen by the wayside and the tune has switched more to a ‘have to keep playing the games’. As great a manager as Manuel is, one cannot succeed with sub par talent. Philadelphia’s patchwork bullpen and sputtering lineup make even the smallest of margins seem insurmountable and, even when the team does take a lead, it has become an expected occurrence that they will find a way to come up on the losing end of things. Manuel’s forte has never been the in-game adjustments as much as his ability to maintain a clubhouse and keep the team from fluctuating too high or low. This has made matters worse for the Phillies, as Manuel continues to look for answers in close situations but is unable to find a formula that works. Ultimately, as unfair as it may seem, Manuel is the one who signs the manager’s card and, for that reason, takes the brunt of the blame.
The organization does appear to have a contingency plan in place, with Ryne Sandberg primed to take over the reins for Manuel, whenever that may be. There has been buzz around the league and the organization regarding Sandberg’s prospects as a big-league manager, but it is impossible to say whether the unproven potential manager-to-be can be the answer the team needs moving forward. While Sandberg’s short track record with the Phillies is an impressive one, leading the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs to the playoffs prior to being named the major league team’s third base coach, the media and fanbase will be placing a lot of pressure on a man who has never managed a major league team. Although it is not guaranteed that he will take over whenever Manuel’s tenure comes to an end, all signs point to him being at least the team’s temporary option, should Manuel be shown the door.
As someone who has only seen one championship as a Philadelphia sports fan, Charlie Manuel will always stand out from any other coach to lead a team to a title. He exemplified one of the beautiful things about baseball, an unconditional love for the game that rarely wavered, no matter what the circumstances. He was the perfect man to lead the best sports team I have had the privilege to be a fan of and he deserves every ounce of credit for the team’s World Series title as any player on the roster and Pat Gillick. All that being said, being a Philadelphia sports fan, one realizes the harsh reality of large-market sports. These men are in a results-driven business and, if they can no longer produce, organizations will do whatever it takes to find someone who will.
At 31-34, sitting at third place in the NL East, the Phillies are statistically still in the mix. I have seen this roster do some magical things over stretches of games and, even through the dredge of last season, there were still glimmers of hope that maybe there was another run left in them. However, with the improvements made in the National League, everything was going to have to break the right way for the Phillies. While I still enjoy every Phillies win and get excited to see Domonic Brown starting to tap into his immense talent, I have watched enough sports to know what happens when a team struggles more than they succeed. This team had an opportunity to give Charlie the sort of cushion, facing last-place teams like the Marlins, Brewers, and Twins. They did not deliver for their manager and, as an organization that is trying to establish themselves among the storied franchises in Major League Baseball, someone has to pay. It is said so often in sports that an organization cannot fire an entire team, but they can fire the coach of that team. It is difficult to imagine Manuel getting an extension at the end of the season anyway. As great as it would have been to see Manuel ride off into the sunset with one more season of winning baseball, it appears less likely every game that this team has the magic capable of providing such a run. Should the Phillies drop the final two games of their series in Minnesota, I expect changes to be made. Considering the trade deadline is several weeks away, upper management really only holds one card at this point, and that is to send manager Charlie Manuel walking.