This, Matt Klentak said, was about looking forward.
“That’s the message today,” the general manager said shortly after the Phillies announced Friday that Pete Mackanin would not be back as the team’s manager in 2018. “It’s time to look forward.”
After watching Rhys Hoskins hit 18 home runs in 18 minutes and after watching Nick Williams drive in 52 runs in 80 games and after watching J.P. Crawford play three infield positions flawlessly, Klentak determined that the Phillies’ future is bright regardless of what the 2017 standings say.
“In my mind, we have reached a turning point in this rebuild,” Klentak said early Friday afternoon as Mackanin sat next to him in a windowless basement room at Citizens Bank Park. “As you all know, we have turned over this roster considerably over the last two years and especially in the last few months. We see our roster right now is littered with young players who look to have a very, very bright future.”
Those young players had gone 35-35 in their previous 70 games after an older version that consisted of underachievers (Michael Saunders and Jeremy Hellickson) and the terminally disabled (Howie Kendrick and Clay Buchholz) had left the team buried at the bottom of the baseball world with a 29-60 record.
Klentak never really offered a valid reason as to why Mackanin will not manage the Phillies beyond Sunday’s season finale against the New York Mets. Mackanin said he could live with the decision despite his disappointment and was pleased that he will remain in the organization as a special adviser to the general manager.
“We’re not firing him,” a defensive Klentak said. “We’re transitioning him into a new role.”
It was clear that Mackanin preferred the old role and it was equally obvious that Friday’s decision represented a major transition for Klentak as well. For the first time he is going to be the guy who names the manager, and the smart money for Mackanin’s replacement will be on a much younger man with a penchant for analytics.
In addition to the 66-year-old Mackanin, the Phillies also had an eight-man coaching staff that averaged 55.9 years old, so it would not be surprising if they would like to add some youth to the staff. Klentak said the coaching decisions will be left to the next manager and told the current coaches they are free to look for work elsewhere.
The smart choice for the next manager would be Dusty Wathan, the 44-year-old former catcher who has spent the last decade climbing his way up the Phillies’ minor-league managerial ladder. He is the man who has mentored most of the young players who represent the future in Philadelphia and it is always good business policy to reward loyal soldiers from within.
Regardless of the next managerial decision, Klentak significantly increased the pressure on himself by pushing Mackanin out of the manager’s office. Asked if it was time to win next season, the 37-year-old GM did not discount the notion, citing the Minnesota Twins, who went from a major-league- worst 103 losses a year ago to an American League playoff berth this season.
“I think every year that we go forward the expectations are going to grow,” Klentak said. “I don’t think we’ve reached the end of our rebuild, but I do think the worst part, the hardest part … is in the rear view.”
The most interesting thing about the Phillies’ rebuilding so far is that only a very small part of it has the signatures of Klentak and team president Andy MacPhail on it. Most of the hope that has emerged in the second half of the season has come from decisions made before that duo’s arrival.
Marti Wolever’s 2014 draft, his last before being fired as the scouting director, brought Aaron Nola in the first round and Hoskins in the fifth round. The year before, Wolever selected Crawford in the first round, Andrew Knapp in the second, and Mark Leiter Jr. in the 22nd round. All five of those players could be on the opening-day roster next season.
Aaron Altherr, a ninth-round pick in 2009, is proof of how much patience is sometimes required before a high school selection emerges.
Odubel Herrera was a Rule 5 pick before Ruben Amaro Jr.’s last season as the general manager. Amaro’s last trade – the one that sent Cole Hamels to Texas – appears to have landed Williams and future starting catcher Jorge Alfaro. The fact that he got rotation hopefuls Nick Pivetta (for Jonathan Papelbon) and Ben Lively (for Marlon Byrd) also looks good.
To his credit, Mackanin kept the Phillies together through the turbulence that always accompanies a rebuilding plan. The manager maintained his patience and offered guidance as the losses mounted, and that’s never easy.
“One thing I’m proud of is I believe a lot of players have improved under my watch,” Mackanin said. “They have played better, they have learned some things, and to me that is just as important as winning.”
Winning is still the most important thing, if not everything. Mackanin should take pride in guiding the Phillies in the right direction and he deserves to be disappointed that he was not given a chance to finish the job.
Klentak decided it was time to “look forward,” and the future is going to include a lot more of the general manager’s fingerprints. If the Phillies are to reach their desired destination, Klentak’s next set of moves, including his first managerial hire, have to be better than the ones he made before the 2017 season.