Start the Meter: How Long a Window does Ryne Sandberg Have to Turn the Phillies Around?


Feb 13, 2014; Clearwater, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg and coach Larry Bowa watch the team workout Thursday morning at Bright House Networks Field. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

For all of the doom and gloom surrounding the 2014 Phillies, they might have a valuable commodity in the man calling the shots on the field when the season does start. Manager Ryne Sandberg, considering the circumstances of his hire, has done and said everything one could ask from him. In less than a year of being the manager of a MLB baseball team, Sandberg was able to help the fanbase put the old manager behind him, starting installing a philosophy shift on the field, and bring a certain level of respectability to a franchise that has gone at great lengths to humiliate themselves over the past two years.

Heading into his first full offseason as manager, Sandberg looks as if he may be a keeper. While he is not the endearing, father-type figure that Charlie Manuel was, this Phillies team needs a break from the free-wheeling, player-friendly ways of the former skipper. Sandberg has shown, in less than half a season, that he is not in the business of making every player happy and making sure the veterans are satisfied with how they are being used. Instead, his little nonsense approach with minimal regard for a player’s stature elicited some of the best play from the team in what was otherwise a miserable 2013 campaign. While there are certainly rough edges to smooth out and the team still finished with a miserable record, the organization has to be happy with what they saw from Sandberg in a managerial role and should feel confident moving forward that they made the right decision keeping him on board.

The Phillies went 20-22 under Sandberg towards the end of last season. Had they not dropped nine of their last 11 contests, one could have figured the Phillies for an above-.500 team with their new skipper. Nevertheless, there were noticeable stretches where the new brand of baseball that Sandberg was trying to foster had started to take. The team was seeing more pitches, the bullpen was utilized in more situations, and players who had been kept on the bench had started to see the field more and more. For a team that is so often defined by its core group of veterans, the Phillies started playing more inspired baseball when new contributors were given a chance. Ultimately, it is Sandberg’s insistence that everyone on the team contribute that will be the cornerstone by which he succeeds or fails.

From the sounds of it, Sandberg’s first spring training has been quite the wake-up call for some of the club’s aging favorites.

This is the approach that had to be taken with this team. With years of bad contracts and logjams at important positions, whomever ended up being manager this season was going to have to find a way to win with the roster as is. The financial ramifications of buying their way out of some of their deals are far too great and, as a major baseball market, continuity is too important to try to scrap the entire roster and start from scratch. The next few year will represent the arduous process of rebuilding the farm system, waiting out some of their more questionable signings, and re-establishing the sort of competitive culture that made the Phillies the class of the National League for five seasons. The question is: Will Sandberg be around to see that happen?

Before diving in to what Sandberg’s shelf-life might end up being, it’s worth noting how he got to where he is. Sandberg climbed through the ranks of the organization using the same mentality that he is bringing to the Phillies clubhouse. A far cry from the “Players’ Manager” Sandberg prefers to treat the players at the highest level of the game the same way he did to his Triple-A players when he was the manager for Lehigh Valley. Much like his bench coach, Larry Bowa was when he managed the team, Sandberg has a preferred way of doing things and will stop at nothing to find the right combination of players to do so. This may mean that some of the club’s more prolific names play a more diminished role than in year’s past. Sandberg does not seem to care much about egos, past success, or feelings. He seems far more interested in putting out a product that gets the job done.

"“I wanted to get everybody on the same page as far as expectations, my philosophies on things and my definitions on things. Respecting the game was one of the topics. . I laid things out there so there is no misunderstandings. I was excited to see everybody and actually get started with the process of molding the guys together as a unit.”"

Early returns from spring training are positive. Sandberg seems to have punched some life into some of the team’s older players and young players, who in year’s past might not get as much exposure, are taking advantage of opportunities handed their way. Even Jonathan Papelbon is singing a noticeably different tune this spring regarding the prospects of this season with Sandberg pulling the strings. For a clubhouse that loved Charlie Manuel more than the fans of the team, it was vital for Sandberg to garner the support of some of the team’s big-money players for him to carry any sort of clout. For Sandberg, having achieved so much as a player (and to a lesser extent manager) allowed him to do so with little need for justification.

Sep 27, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg (23) has a word with an umpire in the seventh inning against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that Charlie Manuel was about as old-school as one could imagine when it came to the diamond. His ‘big picture’ managerial style helped the Phillies realize their talent naturally and progress toward a World Series in poetic fashion. Unfortunately, when the same group plays in the same manner without an emphasis on details and improvement, down years like 2012 and 2013 are inevitable.

Despite his heyday being in the 1980s, Sandberg seems well in-tuned with the direction of Major League Baseball. An insistence on the fundamentals, non-stop hustle, and taking advantage of any and all edges are the hallmarks of Sandberg’s approach. Even though sometimes this type of manager may wear on players, the timing of Sandberg’s ascension is actually favorable for the Phillies skipper.

One would have to expect that the Phillies organization as a whole will prefer that Sandberg’s methods and philosophies trickle down to the minor league level. At his age and experience level, the organization probably hopes Sandberg can be a generational manager that stays on board for a tenure similar to Manuel’s if not longer. The fact that Sandberg was put in charge of the team’s Triple-A affiliate and promoted up indicates they favor his approach to the game, and not necessarily just the players.

If Sandberg expects to stay on board for more than a few seasons, a couple of developments have to occur in order for that to happen. One would hope that, barring injury or unforeseen circumstances, Sandberg’s methods and increase in intensity will bring improvements with some of the team’s aging players. Even past their prime, an improved version of the team’s core can keep the team relatively in contention. Considering the aggressive nature of their general manager, one has to figure the team only has to tread water until the trade deadline before receiving reinforcements. If Sandberg can keep the current roster (for the most part) relevant over the next two seasons, the hardest part of the process is probably over.

By doing this, Sandberg will have extended the career of the primary players the team can expect to contribute in the immediate future. Considering the contracts of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and others, it’s probable that most of the veteran players would be retired or playing elsewhere before Sandberg’s tactics had time to wear down on them. With the veteran collection propping the team up as they struggle through their self-induced dark period, younger players within the organization will be able to grow in the mold that Sandberg prefers. The organization has the resources to provide Sandberg with any supplementary piece he may desire in the future, but his track record as a minor-league manager and his journey towards the majors indicates he would probably prefer not to have to depend on free agency to consistently contend. Sandberg, much more so than Manuel, was a manager hired with the franchise as a whole in mind compared to just the team on top of it.

Feb 19, 2014; Port St Lucie, FL, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (37) chats with the pitchers including Doug Fister (58) (in blue) in spring training action at Space Coast Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

There are a few roadblocks standing in the way of Sandberg. Not that he does not know already, but the NL East has two of the best young teams in baseball and the Phillies will see both the Braves and Nationals quite often. Both clubs are built in the way that Sandberg envisions the Phillies will look in a few years and, even as two of the younger rosters in baseball, are chock full of playoff experience. The reason that the Phillies were able to dominate for a stretch of five years was that they kept the other teams in the division down. From 2007-2011, only the Atlanta Braves joined the Phillies in the playoffs from the NL East and the remaining three teams rarely came close. Winning a division is hard enough. Beating out two top-caliber teams to do so is a totally different animal. The Boston Red Sox proved that a team can still roll through a stacked division, as they did in the AL East last season, but it takes a special collection of players to navigate that type of gauntlet.

The Phillies new manager, at least on the surface, should be in a position to marginally increase last season’s 73-win total. Sandberg’s philosophy change, while it will not guarantee wins against the Braves or Nationals, should help the Phillies manage a bit better against the likes of the Marlins and Mets. Playing the game correctly against bad teams with a few talented players is a recipe that yields positive win percentages. As long as the team’s pitching staff (or at least Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and A.J. Burnett) can remain healthy and pitch to their capabilities, the team should be in a position to win a good chunk of those starts. If one projects that the bullpen is even slightly better than last season, the Phillies should be closer to 80 wins.

Dec 11, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. waits to be interviewed during the MLB Winter Meetings at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. Mandatory Credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Ironically enough, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of Sandberg’s success is the organization. Unlike football, a quick fix in baseball is extremely difficult and requires several conditions that the organization does not have control of. The only reason the Red Sox were able to turn things around and win a World Series last season was that the Dodgers had the financial freedom to take all of Boston’s awful contracts off of their hands. I’m sure the Phillies would have loved to have shipped away Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins in the past few seasons, but there was not a team that was willing to fork out the kind of money to bring in flawed players. The organization, with almost blinding expertise, got themselves into the mess they are currently in. Unless they show patience and grind through the lean years they are currently in, their situation will only get worse.

No matter how much they try to convince themselves, the Phillies are not a ‘win-now’ type team. The rest of the division won’t allow it and the team’s roster is too depleted for a consistent run of success. That said, with the television contract taken care of and attendance numbers holding relatively steady, the Phillies are still a marquee franchise. In a matter of a few years, with the right moves and deliberation, Philadelphia could be right back on top of the division and, with their ability to outbid every other team in the NL East, would have a veritable strangle hold on the sway of power. The key to Sandberg remaining in Philadelphia for longer than two seasons is the organization’s brain trust sitting on their hands for a stretch and allowing their flurry of mistakes to play themselves out while the team continues to undergo a massive culture change. They did a good job avoiding the pitfalls of another gargantuan contract this offseason, a move that could not provide enough improvement to the current roster, and opted to put the onus of expectation on the players they’ve already paid. If the team is in the thick of the playoff hunt and they see an opportunity to acquire a piece that they see as a potential fixture on a title team, a move at the trade deadline is not condemnable. That said, if the team is sitting several games out behind multiple teams and swaps a prospect for a player that cannot put them over the top, the return to the top will have been made that much more difficult.

Sep 15, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Philadelphia Phillies interim manager Ryne Sandberg (23) in the dugout prior to a game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

As tough as last season was, the arrival of Sandberg brought some long-term optimism (something this organization has not had in a while). He did not look like a manager without MLB experience and had the team playing better than they were with Manuel in charge. If the team remains healthy, Sandberg can and should be able to guide the Phillies to a respectable campaign. While I do not think the team is ready to unseat the Braves or Nationals atop the division, the second Wild Card playoff spot leaves the idea of a postseason run as a minute possibility. Sandberg’s approach is a trickle-down type and, if the methods work on the major league level they should work in the minors and improve the Phillies prospect pool. With smart decisions and patience, the Phillies can get out from under their avalanche of bad moves and start acting like an organization with one of the highest payrolls in the league. If this does happen, Sandberg should be given three years to establish himself as a successful manager. Give him two seasons to sift through the dead weight on the roster and install his methods and one season to try to make a run with a clubhouse that he has nurtured.