The 2018 Phillies played their final game late Sunday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park and now, thankfully, they will begin to fade away from memory. It will take some time to forget Gabe Kapler's first season as manager. He was brought in by general manager Matt Klentak to make a difference in the dugout, but what we'll remember most about Kapler's rookie season was how he was so much different than every other manager in franchise history.
Whether it was a good different or bad different depends upon how you want to look at things. Kapler and Klentak can argue that the 2018 Phillies were much better than the 2017 Phillies and they would not be wrong. In fact, with Sunday's 3-1 win over the N.L. East champion Atlanta Braves, they finished with 80 wins, the team's highest total since 2012.
"At this point, I think it's time for us to focus our attention on the fact that we made a huge improvement over 2017 and focus our attention on getting ready for spring training in ," Kapler said.
Kapler's Phillies did, in fact, make a 14-game improvement over last season and only three teams in baseball – the Braves (plus-18), Oakland (plus-22) and Boston (plus-15) – had a more substantial jump in total victories. Unlike those other three teams, the Phillies will be watching this postseason just as they have watched the previous six. And unlike those other teams, the Phillies had an epic freefall over the course of the season's final eight weeks, posting a 17-34 record in their last 51 games after being 15 games over .500 through Aug. 5.
In order to find a Phillies team that played that poorly over its final 51 games, you have to go back to Terry Francona's 2000 team, which also went 17-34. Francona was fired on the season's final day and, of course, went on to what has been a likely Hall of Fame managerial career.
How things work for Kapler and the Phillies going forward should be fascinating. He swore in the final days that he knows he needs to make some changes, but I get the impression he still firmly believes in most everything he did this season. The handling of the bullpen, for example, was one of Kapler's more radical changes to the way the Phillies had done things in the past.
He eschewed a traditional closer and, with the help of analytics, attempted to create pitcher-hitter matchups that he thought were most favorable for the Phillies. That meant his best reliever could appear anywhere from the sixth through the ninth inning. It also meant that for the first time since 1974 the Phillies did not have a pitcher finish at least 30 games. Hector Neris and Seranthony Dominguez led the team with 29 after both contributed a scoreless inning to Sunday's win.
"Our bullpen performed better this year relative to the league than the bullpen performed last year relative to the league," Kapler said. "I believe that our pitchers are tough enough to be used in many different ways. I believe that our relievers are tough enough to pitch in many different innings. I believe that most of our pitchers are tough enough to pitch in high-leverage situations. What I learned is that they are incredibly tough, resilient, capable."
When you compare the 162-game relief work from this season to last season, however, there is little discernible difference. This year's 'pen finished with a 4.19 ERA. Last year's 'pen finished with a 4.18 ERA. This year's pen covered 19 more innings and might have been slightly better, but it also had more experienced arms and cost more on the payroll.
The point here is the bullpen did not make some incredible improvement because Kapler brought an analytic approach to using his relievers. Maybe it will in the future. We are surely going to find out because Klentak has nothing but confidence in his manager.
In fact, the job security of the manager was one of the few things not up in the air as the Phillies completed the season. Carlos Santana stood in front of his locker after Sunday's game unsure if he'd return as a third baseman or a first baseman. Rhys Hoskins made his way to the center of the room and talked about how he'd work hard this winter on improving his defense in left field, but he could be returning to first base. If not Hoskins in left field, then who?
Bryce Harper would sure look nice at one of the corner outfield spots, but the cost of getting him to agree is going to be astronomical. Odubel Herrera wants to be the Phillies' center fielder in 2019, but he's not sure he will even be a Phillie. The Phillies love Roman Quinn, but can they trust him to be an everyday player given his injury history?
Cesar Hernandez, who may or may not be back for another season as the team's second baseman, declined to do a group interview after hitting his career-high 15th home run in the first inning.
Do the Phillies believe Jorge Alfaro is their everyday catcher? Will they re-sign veteran Wilson Ramos?
Will the Phillies try to add a veteran starter on a long-term deal, a business practice that team president equates with root canal.
"I think we have a very good understanding of our players, of our roster construction, of our staff and the only way to get a good well-rounded view of it is to go through a season like this," Kapler said. "It was certainly instructive; we're prepared to make adjustments and be much, much better in 2019 than we were in 2018."
That might happen, but as the Phillies left the field for the final time Sunday they sure looked like a team with just as many questions now as they had when they arrived in spring training.