Gabe Kapler came by his first MLB managerial job as an unabashedly unconventional candidate, a man with many personal idiosyncrasies—from the coconut oil incident to the ice cream affair—that made him extremely easy to mock. He arrived in a Philadelphia sports landscape that had just run Eagles coach Chip Kelly out of town and was recovering from a battle over Sam Hinkie. Heterodoxy was not a good survival mechanism, particularly for a manager who bollixed a pitching change, against the Braves no less, to lose literally his first game in charge.
And yet, even after the Phillies fired Kapler on Thursday morning after just two seasons in charge, it would be unfair to say that he was doomed from the start. The Phillies took a gamble on Kapler and stayed in the pot longer than was tenable. Even after the 2018 team went from first place on August 12 to 10 games out by season’s end, a stupefying collapse that coincided with a rapidly toxifying clubhouse atmosphere. Even after reports surfaced last winter that during Kapler’s time as the Dodgers’ farm director, he’d failed to report accounts of sexual assault and harassment by his players to MLB or police, and that he was being investigated for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act committed during his time in L.A. These revelations should have been troubling enough to sink even an established and successful manager, and yet the Phillies stood by him.
Philadelphia entered the 2019 season having bolstered its roster with free-agent additions Bryce Harper, David Robertson, and Andrew McCutchen, and veteran trade acquisitions J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura. These additions added some $45 million net to the Opening Day payroll and, in concert with homegrown stars Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins, signified that the team aimed to contend—and soon—and that Kapler was the manager to lead them.
After a spate of injuries and the shocking realization that a contending team needs more than one good pitcher, the Phillies finished 81-81, just one game better than their 2018 record. Another second-half collapse dropped the club to fourth place in a division where the Mets, Braves, and Nationals had also done some serious offseason retooling. Even then, it took the Phillies 10 days of postseason deliberations to muster up the gumption to cashier the manager whose physique was as shredded as his pitching staff.
For all of his failings, the mess Kapler leaves behind is not entirely one of his own making. And the longer one looks at that mess, the clearer it becomes that removing Kapler is far from the last step in the journey back to the playoffs. The 2019 Phillies went into the season with Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez, and Nick Pivetta set to fill out the rotation behind Nola, and all four of those pitchers were hurt, ineffective, or both for long swaths of the season, leaving the team to try to grasp at a playoff berth while rolling Jason Vargas and Drew Smyly out for two-fifths of its games. Almost every hitter in the lineup underachieved to some extent this year, and once-promising guys like Maikel Franco, Cesar Hernandez, and Nick Williams now look like write-offs.
Kapler’s departure won’t solve those shortcomings, and it seems like team president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak know it. The very fact that it took so long to fire Kapler when the team’s fate was sealed by early September reeks of organizational dysfunction. The club is once again considering playing Scott Kingery at shortstop despite mountains of evidence that it didn’t work in 2018. The Phillies also decided to retain nine assistant coaches, which might dissuade experienced managerial candidates like Joe Maddon and Dusty Baker, who might be inclined to hire their own staffs. That means the next manager will probably be a stopgap, someone to douse the fire before it spreads to the front office.
Because while Kapler was weird, and divisive, and corrupt, and deserved to be fired long ago, it remains a distinct possibility that he was not the only reason the Phillies underachieved the past two years. If they swoon again in 2020, Klentak might not have to ponder his fate for 10 days after the season ends.