LET'S GET a couple of things straight. First, the Phillies' rationale for parting ways with Charlie Manuel yesterday made some sense. They do not want the next 6 weeks to play out as the the last 4 have, and installing the presumptive manager of the future with 42 games remaining is a logical way to signal the start of a new era. But regardless of the validity of the course of action that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and president David Montgomery ultimately chose, it should not obscure the fact that they were forced to consider it only because of a series of their own blunders.
In other professions, the series of decisions that led to the firing of the most successful manager in Phillies history would be grounds for allegations of gross negligence. The dreck that fans at Citizens Bank Park have paid to witness this summer is the result of a total organizational breakdown, the kind that cannot be corrected with a "new face" or a "new energy" or any of the other foofy, B.S. fingered for probable cause by Amaro and others during yesterday's various media briefings. The players' performance does not look lackadaisical because they need inspiration; it looks lackadaisical because that is how bad teams look.
When the Phillies were tearing through the National League East for five straight seasons, they were not "willing" the ball to go over the wall. They were not "efforting" themselves around the bases. They were not "gritting" through the late innings of tight ballgames. They were a good team that played as good teams do, with an energy that exists only as a byproduct of talent. The Phillies had a command structure that was supposed to maintain that level of talent. That command structure failed.
Back in 2009, Amaro offered an assessment that he would repeat at various times as the Phillies' payroll grew from roughly $100 million to its peak of $170 million in 2011.
"If I can't put a championship team on the field with this payroll," the GM said, "then it is my fault."
The Phillies are not headed toward a second straight October without playoff baseball because of the strategic maneuvers executed in the dugout. Even if every piece of criticism leveled at Manuel during his 9 years as manager were valid, the Phillies would be right where they are, which is in fourth place and headed downward, well out of the conversation for both a division title and a wild-card playoff spot, their future hindered by a bloated payroll and a barren farm system, their present exemplified by the continued employment of far too many players who are active only because every other major league team passed on them.
Manuel might have left Citizens Bank Park after the news conference that announced his firing yesterday afternoon, but Michael Martinez, John McDonald and Casper Wells remained, as did a bullpen that included two relievers who were not pitching particularly well at Triple A, one who was acquired via waivers in the offseason from a Mariners team that finished with 75 wins, and one who finished 2012 with an 11.57 ERA pitching for an independent league team. The Phillies have spent two seasons trying to determine whether John Mayberry Jr. can play regularly in the outfield after spending two seasons trying to determine whether Ben Francisco could play regularly. They entered the last two Aprils attempting to convince their fan base and their manager that players such as Juan Pierre and Delmon Young merited regular at-bats on a team with championship aspirations.
In recent months, we have written at length about the two decisions that have undermined much of what the Phillies set out to accomplish in the wake of their second straight World Series berth in 2009. The signing of Ryan Howard to a 5-year, $125 million contract extension 2 years before he was scheduled to hit free agency and the trading of Cliff Lee to the Mariners for a mediocre package of prospects continue to haunt the organization. But as detrimental as those moves will continue to prove, the most inexcusable failure by the roster builders occurred in the wake of Jayson Werth's departure after the 2010 season.
Amaro's handling of the corner outfield positions over the last three seasons is a case of roster malpractice that cannot be explained away with the usual excuses, all of which made their regular scheduled appearances during yesterday's proceedings. The Phillies knew as early as midway through the 2010 season that they would not be able to reach an agreement on a new contract for their rightfielder, whose righthanded power and smooth defensive play was a major factor in their run of dominance. Yet they neglected the corner outfield spots in three straight free-agent markets, including the 2011 offseason, when sluggers such as Josh Willingham, Carlos Beltran and Michael Cuddyer signed contracts that ended up paling in comparison with the explosion of dollars that occurred in the ensuing years.
The easy course of action is to call for the ouster of Amaro, who effectively painted himself with a well-deserved bull's-eye by dispatching Manuel. But firing the GM won't do a thing if the philosophy that resulted in his hiring remains the same. When the Phillies traded Lee before acquiring Roy Halladay, it was a panicky move indicative of a franchise not yet comfortable with life as a big-revenue power player. Four years later, that sensibility remains in an environment where contracts sometimes seem as if they are awarded as much for patronage as for merit, where players' past performances are valued more than their future projections, where exhaustive data and proven trends are ignored because of an unwillingness to do things in way that is different from the way they have always been done.
Ever since the Phillies said goodbye to Pat Gillick and the significant power bequeathed to him, the organization's trajectory has looked suspiciously like those often produced by that hideous beast we call bureaucracy, where progressive mindsets and the will to challenge status quos are steamrolled by the slow plod of inertia along the path of least resistance. The Phillies are a fossilized dinosaur inside a glacier, content to watch the rest of civilization drift away, convinced that the space between is growing at a manageable pace. Except the pace is not manageable, because progress is exponential. As the Phillies wait for the next great thaw, an organization such as the Rays busies itself making decisions that, while difficult, are necessary to engender new growth. They rebuild their bullpen every season at a fraction of the amount the Phillies spend on theirs. They buy at the bottom of the market and sell at the top. They do not express bewilderment at the declining performance and injuries typical of veterans. They make the changes that allow them to field a team that comes as close to reaching their model of success as their resources afford.
Yesterday, Charlie Manuel exited his office for the last time, disappearing down a tunnel that spilled out into the fading August light and the world that lies beyond Citizens Bank Park.
He was the lucky one.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy