'It is time to win': Phils set for critical camp

February 6th, 2020

PHILADELPHIA -- This is it, folks.

The Phillies open Spring Training on Tuesday in Clearwater, Fla., and it is a big one. The stakes have never been higher for a front office that has been charged with rebuilding the franchise since 2015. It tried at varying lengths to win the past couple seasons, but the team collapsed in the second half each time.

The late-season failures cost Gabe Kapler, his hitting coach and pitching coach their jobs. It placed increasing pressure on president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak to deliver Philadelphia’s first winner since Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt led the rotation in 2011.

The Phillies chose Joe Girardi to lead the way on the field, believing his experience, reputation and smarts can push them further. Girardi’s arrival leaves little room for excuses in 2020, especially with a payroll that is inching toward the $208 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold.

The Phils acknowledge that.

“We’ve reached a place where it is time to win,” Klentak said at Girardi’s introductory news conference on Oct. 28. “No questions asked, it is time to win right now. That lends itself to bringing in a guy who has done that, who has won in the toughest markets with the pressures and has hoisted that World Series trophy over his head. I think that’s all what led us to Joe, and I think that’s by and large why we placed such a premium on prior experience.”

Can a manager make that much of a difference?

Can a pitching coach? Can a hitting coach?

Those questions make the Phillies a fascinating case study this season. Managing partner John Middleton fired Kapler on Oct. 10 after he crisscrossed the country, talking to players about Kapler and the inner workings of the clubhouse. Middleton said that he received positive feedback about Kapler, but nobody could explain the second-half collapses or offer any assurances that they would not happen again.

It is no secret that Kapler let his players police themselves in the clubhouse. There were few rules. Some players liked that. Some took advantage. But some inside the organization considered the lack of accountability a problem.

Life will be different with Girardi.

“I'm not going to hand them a list of 25 rules and expect them to memorize them,” Girardi said. “You know how players are, they get a piece of paper and ... right? They're focused on what they have to do. So, simple things. It's simple. I don't think you have to give them a ton of rules. It's: Be on time. Be prepared. Be accountable to each other. Be respectful of each other. Love each other. Trust each other. Be respectful to the people around us who have to do their jobs.

"There will be rules about the training room. But as long as you're on time and you're prepared and you're accountable and that you're focused on winning, is there really anything else? You can encompass everything in those four rules.”

Girardi considers himself a mixture of new and old school. His pitching coach, Bryan Price, has a traditional background. His hitting coach, Joe Dillon, has a more modern approach. The players seem to be excited about the changes, especially the pitchers. Kapler dismissed popular pitching coach Rick Kranitz following the 2018 season because he preferred Chris Young, who had a scouting and analytics background. The move backfired.

“I feel like a sneaky way the Phillies have helped us this offseason is the coaches they've brought in,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said last month. “The manager they brought in. I feel like we have a lot of experience to work with now. I think it'll help us a lot behind the scenes.

"I thought those guys [starting pitchers Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta] had better stuff than what they were showing. I still feel the same way. I feel like Bryan Price is really going to help those guys a lot. A couple of conversations I have had with him, he has a lot of really good ideas for them that can help them be better pitchers. I feel like we have to tap into that potential somehow. I feel like he's the right guy to do it.”

The Phillies feel like Girardi is the right guy, too. They are banking on it.