Manager decision was easy answer for Phillies
YOU COULDN'T help but empathize with Ryne Sandberg when the Cubs twice passed him over for a managerial vacancy, but you also couldn't help but wonder whether the hirings of Mike Quade and Dale Sveum were less a result of merit than they were an indication of the organization's reluctance to allow their beloved Hall of Fame second baseman to tarnish his legacy at the helm of an overpaid, underperforming roster that had little chance to compete in the immediate future. So there was more than a little bit of irony in the Phillies' announcement yesterday that they had removed the "interim" designation from Sandberg's title and signed him to a 3-year contract that will pay him to be their manager through the 2016 season.
The reality of the situation is that the answers to most of the pertinent questions facing the Phillies in this last week of the regular season are mostly out of the manager's control. In the 5 weeks since the club dismissed Charlie Manuel and turned things over to his heir apparent, Sandberg has left little doubt about his aptitude in the dugout. Forget about the 18-16 record that he carried into yesterday's home finale at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies were more interested in Sandberg's process than his results, and what that revealed was a serious, analytical mind with a remarkable memory whose hands-on approach to managing appeared to connect with veterans and rookies alike. If this roster struggles over the next two or three seasons, it won't be because Sandberg gets any less out of the talent at his disposal than another manager would have. If this roster struggles, it will be because it is not a very good roster. And that remains a distinct possibility given the manner in which the Phillies' resources have been allocated over the last few seasons.
The task that Ruben Amaro Jr. and his front office must complete this offseason is a convoluted one. Two of the biggest factors behind the Phillies' ability to compete under Sandberg are players who do not have clear roles on next year's club. Cesar Hernandez entered yesterday with a .314 batting average and .379 on-base percentage (along with a middling .372 slugging percentage) in 26 games. Darin Ruf carried a .260/.358/.489 batting line and 14 home runs in 265 plate appearances. On another roster, they would give the organization a second baseman and first baseman whose combined salary of less than $1 million would allow the front office to invest significant resources in other positions of need. But the Phillies already have Chase Utley and Ryan Howard signed through at least the next two seasons at a combined price tag of almost $40 million annually. Hernandez has shown some promise in centerfield, but the Phillies already have a similar skill set there in Ben Revere. Ruf has shown some promise in rightfield, but that is one of the few positions that is available to upgrade, and Sandberg and Amaro have sounded noncommittal when asked about their comfort with Ruf as the team's lone righthanded power bat.
The Phillies could keep Ruf in rightfield and look to add a more accomplished bat in centerfield, where the Red Sox' Jacoby Ellsbury and the Yankees' Curtis Granderson are both free agents who play good defense and offer much more power than Revere. They could also look for a value play in rightfield in a player like Corey Hart, hoping to get Ruf as many at-bats as he earns while rotating between first base and the two corner outfield spots. The 31-year-old Hart, who missed all of this season with a knee injury but averaged 24 home runs and an .830 OPS from 2007-12, would give the Phillies two righthanded power bats capable of playing both corner outfield spots and first base, where Howard has long struggled against lefties.
But there is a good case to be made that baseball has entered an era where, thanks to the influx of national television money benefiting every team and the paucity of talent available, there are no more value plays on the free-agent market. A player like Hart could very well prompt a bidding war like the ones that saw the Phillies bow out of pursuit of players like Michael Cuddyer, B.J. Upton and Nick Swisher in recent years. And while they have some money at their disposal, the need for a catcher and No. 3 starter along with a veteran bullpen arm or two means they need to pay Peter and Paul (and perhaps Simon as well).
Heading into yesterday the Phillies had scored three or fewer runs in 17 of Sandberg's 34 games at the helm. They were hitting .244/.316/.373 as a team during that stretch. In all likelihood, that's a job that requires more than just Howard and Revere.
There are some wild cards, namely Howard and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who is in the midst of his first solid month of the season. Maybe Sandberg really does have an answer that three previous hitting coaches did not. Or maybe the conventional wisdom is true, and a manager is only as good as the talent at his disposal, and the eventual fate of the new guy's tenure will rest more with the decisions made moving forward than the one announced yesterday.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy