Despite all the attention that has been paid to Gabe Kapler’s in-game decision making, from his use of analytics to his utilization of the bullpen, the biggest threat to his first season as manager is a circumstance that isn’t entirely his own doing.
The first rumble of discontent surfaced before the first pitch had been thrown, when Odubel Herrera expressed his displeasure at being left out of the Opening Day lineup. On Thursday, the murmur increased a few decibels, when Nick Williams made some on-the-record comments that left little doubt about his disenchantment with his current playing time.
It is early, no doubt. The Phillies are six games into a 162-game season, the equivalent of the early stages of the third quarter of a Week 1 NFL game. Kapler has spent a lot of time stressing the long run, insisting that his plan of mixing and matching will result in plenty of plate appearances for all.
But baseball players, in general, are not long run thinkers. It is a team sport, but an individual craft, its participants deriving their enjoyment from two principal things. One is the ability to perform, the other is the riches it can bring. Winning is enough fun that it can balance out a deficit in those two ledgers. But when it a team isn’t winning, the first thought of an athlete who isn’t playing is, “They’d be winning with me.”
The most significant long-run issue with this Phillies team is that there are too many “me’s.” Even since Matt Klentak signed veteran first baseman Carlos Santana to a three-year contract this offseason, he and Kapler have insisted that another reality exists, a place where a logjam is not a logjam but a make-shift footbridge.
At first, you assumed that they were just stalling for time, kicking the can for however long it was needed to maintain leverage for an eventual trade. And maybe they were, and maybe such a trade did not come to fruition. But that does not change the fundamentals of the problem.
The Phillies have nine players who need regular at-bats, and seven spots in the batting order to fit them. Four of those players — Herrera, Carlos Santana, Cesar Hernandez and, Rhys Hoskins — have established themselves as legitimate regulars in a first division lineup. The other five — Williams, J.P. Crawford, Aaron Altherr, Scott Kingery, and Maikel Franco — are at stages of their careers where they need regular at-bats to prove whether or not they belong in that first group.
While Kapler says he envisions a scenario in which each of those nine players finishes the season with 450+ plate appearances, no National League team in the expansion era has ever finished a season with more than eight.
The closest parallel to what the Phillies are attempting to accomplish was last year’s Chicago Cubs, who had nine players with 400+ plate appearances among a similar mix of veterans and young/potential stars. But there are several factors that make the Cubs a different case, starting with the fact that they two players who logged at least 350 innings in both the outfield and middle infield. Among the Phillies’ group, Kingery is the only potential swing player, leaving four other outfielders for, at most, three daily spots.
A second factor, and crucial, factor is that the Cubs were a winning team, and herein lies one of the many potential defects of the Phillies’ current vision.
The old maxim about the overpromising and underdelivering is usually applied to the client side of things. It’s a danger that has been known full well to plenty of underachieving athletes and teams in this city. But the rancor of the fanbase should be less of a concern to Kapler and Co. than the dissatisfaction of his own players.
In a certain way, they are his clients, having been sold a blueprint that says individual sacrifice will be made up for in wins. A 2-4 start is not necessarily indicative of a structural flaw in that plan. But if the starting pitching behind Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta does not dramatically improved, it is easy to envision a lot of six-game increments that play out the same.
That’s not a suggestion that a losing season will set the stage for a mutiny. There are a lot of clubhouses throughout baseball that feature players who are not happy with their playing time. The younger those players are, the more they are comforted by the reality that life is a lot worse in Triple-A.
But the challenge confronting Kapler and the Phillies is not merely one of cohesion. For the five young players we mentioned, this is still a developmental season. Athletes are creatures of routine, baseball players more than most. Look at their mannerisms in the batter’s box, on the mound, in the cage. There is a certain level of neurosis required to perform underneath the lights. In all human endeavors, we are at our best when we feel in control of and at ease in our environment. For a lot of baseball players, that means being in the lineup every day.
Prior to Thursday’s win over the Marlins, Kapler downplayed concerns about the effect his lineup shuffle might have on his young players’ rhythm.
“As a player myself, and remembering what that felt like, as long as I was getting regular reps, it wasn’t about going out there every single day and seeing my name in the lineup in any particular spot,” Kapler said. “I saw the game as a starter. … but I also saw it as a part-time player, as a platoon player, and as a once-in-a-while player, and I can tell you that as long as you are getting looks, you are getting reps, you can feel sharp. Now, does that make for optimal conditions? But we say, how well can you perform when conditions aren’t perfect, when conditions aren’t set up perfectly for you to succeed. And I think all of our guys are going to be sort of challenged with that, but on the flip side, they are going to be put into positions to succeed, because they are going to be put into good matchups, and they are going to be healthy, recovered and rested.”
It can’t be stressed enough that the season is a long one. Injuries happen. Players play their way out of the lineup and onto the bench. Two months from now, if Williams is playing every day and playing well, the two starts he has gotten in six games will be forgotten. At the same time, you can understand the frustration of a guy who started 79 games in 94 days after being called up to the majors last season. Kapler’s ability to navigate that reality will be the real test of his managerial prowess.