The outlook at Citizens Bank Park is much improved since Andy MacPhail's introductory news conference, when he said his main functions as the Philadelphia Phillies' president-in-waiting would be "to read, to watch and to listen." If MacPhail is paying attention in his temporary role as special assistant to president Pat Gillick, he has probably noticed that things aren't quite as grim or stagnant around the park as they were on June 29.
A Phillies team that looked lifeless under former manager Ryne Sandberg is playing with energy under interim manager Pete Mackanin. Since bottoming out at 29-62 the day before the All-Star break, the Phillies are 21-15 and no longer a lock to finish with the worst record in baseball. This week's 16-7 beatdown at the hands of the New York Mets is testament to the team's pitching shortcomings, but a Phillies game on the schedule no longer qualifies as a de facto off day.
The Phillies lead the majors in farewell news conferences this season. During a three-week span in July and August, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. traded away Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon and Chase Utley, continuing a makeover that began with the Jimmy Rollins trade to the Dodgers in December. Of the old guard, only Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz and Cliff Lee (who has yet to pitch this season because of an elbow injury) remain.
Odubel Herrera, a Rule 5 draft pick from Texas, is hitting .292 and leads all rookies with 25 doubles. Maikel Franco was smack in the middle of the NL Rookie of the Year debate before going down with a broken wrist. Cesar Hernandez shows promise at second base, and former first-round pick Aaron Nola looks like a solid mid-rotation starter. The Phillies will need a lot more where that came from, but it's a start.
Shortstop J.P. Crawford, catcher Andrew Knapp and the prospects acquired in Amaro's flurry of trades reflect a deeper, more talented farm system. A new, $2.5 billion TV deal with Comcast SportsNet kicks in next year. Lee's guaranteed $120 million contract runs out at the end of this season, and Howard and Ruiz will come off the books (with the exception of their buyouts) in 2016. The Phillies rank 25th in the majors in attendance and probably will draw less than two million for the first time since 2002. But apathy has yet to take root in the city, and it's not outlandish to see Citizens Bank Park rocking again the way it did when the Phillies sold out 257 straight games a few years ago.
"That organization is a gold mine," said one competing executive. "Look at the ballpark. Look at the spring training facility. Look at the television deal. This is a goose that's going to lay a golden egg. No wonder Andy MacPhail came out of retirement."
The Phillies have even hitched a ride on the sabermetrics train. The franchise's new proprietary computer system, PHIL (short for Phillies' Holistic Information Location) will be up and running in September.
In summary, an optimist might conclude that the Phillies have bottomed out and have a chance to be competitive by 2017 or '18. Which leads to the obvious question: Who'll be assembling the rosters and making out the lineup cards when that happens?
As part of the information-gathering process, MacPhail sits in on all the meetings. He recently accompanied the Phillies on a road trip to Arizona and Milwaukee, and he's visited some minor league affiliates. But he's steered clear of media interviews, and he declined a request to talk for this story. In MacPhail's stead, Gillick didn't shed much light on the team's general manager and manager situations.
"The only thing I can say is that all of us here -- including myself -- are continually under evaluation," Gillick said. "The evaluation process is going on, and to my knowledge, there hasn't been any decision made about the direction that we're going to go."
Gillick, who entered the Hall of Fame in 2011 and recently turned 78, exudes the vibe of a man who would be content to stop and smell the roses if it ultimately comes to that.
"The game plan is for Andy to assume my position somewhere between the first of October and the first of November," Gillick said. "To be frank, I don't know if I'm going to stay at that point. Andy is going to be the president and run the club as he wishes. I might be here and I might not be here."
In the interim, life goes on as usual. Mackanin cobbles together lineups and watches attentively as starters Jerad Eickhoff and Adam Morgan audition for jobs and the young position players work through the inevitable brain cramps and missteps. And Amaro scans the waiver wire and lays the groundwork for an offseason game plan that might not include him.
In an information vacuum, Mackanin and Amaro wait patiently for MacPhail's blessing -- or his pink slip.
"Everything is up in the air," Mackanin said. "We don't know what Andy is going to decide to do. I'm sure he's watching the games and trying to evaluate everybody -- players, coaches, me. I don't want to even think about it, because I'm just going to manage a baseball game the way I always have and let the cards fall where they may. I would like to have the job, but I'm not consumed with hoping or worrying about it."
Amaro expressed similar sentiments while watching the trouncing by the Mets with senior adviser Dallas Green and the rest of his front-office team from the general manager's box on Monday.
"As a human being, of course I worry about what's going to happen to me in 2016 and beyond," Amaro said. "When I get home and talk to my wife about the future, the natural instinct is to wonder what's going on, But if I let myself get distracted by that stuff, it will take away from me doing my job. I can't obsess about it. This job is too time-consuming and there are too many things you have to do to be sharp and be aware of."
If the conventional wisdom in baseball circles means anything, Amaro is probably gone and Mackanin is a good bet to follow him out the door. But MacPhail's decision-making process is considerably more complicated than it was two months ago.
The lightning rod
It will surprise absolutely no one if MacPhail cuts ties with Amaro, who has become a prime focus for fan discontent amid the Phillies' decline from 102-game winners in 2011 to strong candidates to land the top pick in the June 2016 first-year player draft.
Amaro signed Howard for $125 million and hung onto Utley, Rollins and others when their bodies were eroding and their skills were starting to wane. When he traded Lee, Hunter Pence and other veteran pieces, he failed to get much in return. And when he wasn't dissing analytics, he was making knee-jerk comments about Utley or Howard or the team's fan base that ultimately backfired on him.
"Ruben is a smart guy," said a veteran AL scout, "but you hear some of the things he says and it's like he doesn't have any filter."
Say this for Amaro: In an era of cautious GM-speak, he is usually willing to engage with fans in a pull-up-a-bar-stool kind of way. And unless the criticisms cross the line from business to personal, he refrains from holding grudges.
"It's funny," Amaro said. "Everybody wants you to be honest, and when you're honest, it's too honest. Are there things perhaps you regret from time to time? Sure. You don't want to embarrass any players -- especially guys like Chase and Howie. I talked to them on a one-on-one basis and apologized.
"To my detriment, I get emotional at times because I've grown up here and I'm a Phillies fan. But I also have expectations of myself that far exceed what the fans have. I'm not proud of what's happened the last couple of years, but I'm pretty proud of what happened prior to that and what we're doing now. Hopefully, we can keep it going."
Some of the rampant Amaro-bashing ignores the behind-the-scenes dynamic and complex nature of big-ticket signings. The Phillies were guilty of excessive sentiment and clinging to the past when they signed aging stars to long-term contracts, but it would be naïve to dismiss the involvement of longtime Phillies president David Montgomery and ownership in the team's ill-advised expenditures.
Amid the widespread public perception that Gillick is driving the current rebuild, Amaro was on the front line of the Rollins, Hamels, Papelbon and Utley trades. He did all the heavy lifting, from gathering information on prospects to making the phone calls. After being next-to-invisible during MacPhail's introductory news conference in June, Amaro notably sat elbow-to-elbow with Utley during the second baseman's goodbye news conference last week.
The Phillies' recent surge of activity set up an interesting scenario: Amaro played a big role in getting the Phillies into the mess they're in, and an equally prominent role in digging them out of it. He received largely positive reviews for acquiring prospects Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro and Jake Thompson from Texas in the Hamels trade and replenishing the farm system. But if he's not retained, his successor will realize the benefits of those efforts.
Who could that person be? Baseball insiders continue to mention Kansas City assistant GM J.J. Picollo, a New Jersey native who has been integral to the Royals' resurgence, as a good fit in Philadelphia. Another name on the radar is former Boston GM Ben Cherington, who shares an Amherst College pedigree with Phillies minority owner and general partner John Middleton. "That's the one to watch," said an American League personnel man.
Teams can't be slaves to fan reaction, but it would be naïve to think the Phillies are oblivious to the fallout from their pending moves. Major League Baseball officials who are skeptical of Amaro remaining in Philadelphia wonder how MacPhail could spend several months doing an exhaustive organizational review, then stand at a podium in October beside Amaro and say, "The perfect guy to lead the Phillies moving forward is the guy who's been here all along." How would that scenario play with prospective season-ticket holders?
"Anything is possible," said a National League front-office man. "The Phillies are one of the few organizations that's run like a family, and it's very hard for them to say goodbye to a family member. Ruben has been there for a long time. But there's an angry mob, and they've wanted blood for a while. If your first move as team president is to retain Ruben, I think that would be a challenging sell in Philadelphia."
If Amaro leaves Philadelphia, he's likely to find other opportunities in the broadcast booth or a front office. One NL talent evaluator speculated that Amaro could be a potential fit with the Los Angeles Angels. He's an old-school-ball type who might be able to co-exist with Mike Scioscia, and his Latino pedigree and ability to speak fluent Spanish would be pluses in the Southern California market. Amaro also understands what it means to work in a challenging environment from his tenure in Philly.
Amaro's Philadelphia critics, who disparagingly refer to him as "Ruin Tomorrow Jr.," won't miss him. But he's not the only general manager with a hardcore contingent of detractors. "Fire Brian Sabean" rants abounded in San Francisco before the Giants won three titles in five years.
"I get great support from people I see on the street," Amaro said. "They tell me, 'You've got a tough job, Ruben,' or, 'Hang in there.' I get a lot of 'Attaboys.' Whether they're keeping it real or not, I don't know. It could be the same people who call in [to talk radio] and say, 'This guy is the worst.'
"It's just fans being passionate. They don't see a winning team on the field right now, so it's the worst thing in the world. But if you take a real deep look at what's happening here, you can see some things turning the corner."
The interim guy
Mackanin, at 64, has a lot of Jim Leyland in him -- minus the nicotine-stained fingers and the success at the big league level. He's the loyal organizational soldier who engenders great respect within the industry, while the people in charge of doing the hiring invariably seem to look elsewhere.
Mackanin's career résumé includes 1,766 games as a manager in the minors and 159 games in the majors. He interviewed for jobs with the Red Sox, Cubs and Astros through the years only to see those positions go to someone else. And he was an interim fill-in for Lloyd McClendon in Pittsburgh and Jerry Narron in Cincinnati before taking over for Sandberg in June.
Wayne Krivsky, a special assistant to Twins GM Terry Ryan, was Cincinnati's GM in 2007 when Mackanin inherited a 31-51 team and led it to a 41-39 record the rest of the way. After the season, the Reds hired Dusty Baker as their new manager. But Krivsky has always been a Mackanin believer.
"He took over a team that was 20 under and was over .500," Krivsky said. "Now I'm seeing it play out all over again. It's a funny game. You can have all the experience and the résumé and everything to qualify for the job, and a lot of it is timing and who people know and who they're comfortable with. I've always thought Pete deserves a chance."
Mackanin has struck a chord with the Philadelphia players in ways that Sandberg never could. His ability to speak Spanish helps him relate to the young Hispanic players on the Phillies' roster, and he's without pretense and utterly true to himself after so many career setbacks. He doesn't live in fear of losing his job, and there's something liberating in that.
"Selfishly, I'd like to see Pete get the opportunity," Phillies outfielder Jeff Francoeur said. "It would be neat to see him get a chance to show what he can do -- if not here, then someplace else."
In the big picture, it's not far-fetched to construct a scenario that would allow Mackanin to stay in Philadelphia for another year or two. The Phillies don't expect to make the playoffs in 2016 or 2017. So would the hot manager out there -- say, Bud Black -- be interested in signing up for developmental duty? Mackanin could be a nice bridge to the manager who gets the Phillies to the playoffs again. And if he turns out to be that guy, MacPhail and the next GM will look brilliant for keeping him.
Recent history shows that new general managers don't automatically opt for "their guy" in the dugout. When Dayton Moore took over the Royals in 2007, he kept Buddy Bell through a 93-loss season before turning the page to Trey Hillman, and eventually Ned Yost. Upon arrival in Houston, Jeff Luhnow kept Brad Mills around for 111 games before moving on to Bo Porter, and then A.J. Hinch.
"The thought creeps in your head, 'If we win a lot of games and do well, I've got a chance,"' Mackanin said. "But I'm smart enough to understand that's not a good way to look at it. The best way is to challenge the players on a daily basis to stay positive and play with enthusiasm and play to win. That's the best way for me to spend my energy."
The wins still aren't coming frequently enough for anybody's liking in Philadelphia. But the Phillies' recent slapstick past has given way to an intriguing present and reason to hope for the future. Someday soon, Andy MacPhail will emerge from his bunker and decree who's going to reap the benefits.