Did clubhouse chemistry hurt Phillies in 2013?

Did clubhouse chemistry hurt Phillies in 2013?

January 13, 2014, 7:15 pm
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Chase Utley admitted Monday that last season "was an awkward situation for everyone." (AP)

Chase Utley was in the Phillies’ clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park on Monday. It was the perfect setting for the principal subject matter: what went wrong last season, and why.

“Last year was a tough year for everybody, and it can be frustrating at times,” Utley said. “I totally understand the frustration. I’ve always been the one to -- what happens in the clubhouse should stay in the clubhouse. That’s kind of the motto I’ve lived by over the years.”

Keep it in the clubhouse. He’s been pretty good at that. Some of his other teammates haven’t been nearly as disciplined.

During the offseason, Cole Hamels was quoted in Philadelphia magazine saying “our hitting sucked.” He was right. It did. The Phils were 21st in batting average and slugging percentage, 23rd in home runs, 24th in on-base percentage, 25th in RBIs and 27th in runs.

That he told the truth hardly mattered. What mattered -- what people focused on -- was that Hamels spoke up. And he went further.

“The energy in the clubhouse changed,” Hamels said in the Philly Mag piece. “It used to be all high fives. This season, there weren’t as many high fives. There was a lot of bitterness, pointing fingers -- ‘You haven’t played well in a week, why weren’t you in here early?’”

Hamels wasn’t the only one to not-so subtly hint at clubhouse dysfunction. In an ironic twist, Jonathan Papelbon -- who created serious tumult when he said “I definitely didn't come here for this” following an awful 1-8 July road trip -- also criticized the off-field atmosphere. During an offseason interview with WEEI radio in Boston, the opinionated closer said he came from a Red Sox culture that was “in your face” -- a team where players yelled at each other and the airing of grievances was accepted. The Phillies, he said, were different.

“That’s kind of the way I was groomed into being a baseball player,” Papelbon said. “Then I go to Philadelphia and it wasn’t necessarily that way, and I know that I’ve gotten a bad rap, some of the guys will say I’m not a good clubhouse guy because I’ll get upset and I’ll say something, but I’ve always said what’s on my mind.”

If Utley -- who is regarded as a lead-by-example, if not lead-by-speaking type -- would prefer to keep that kind of thing in the clubhouse, Hamels and Papelbon evidently didn’t get the message. But, then, why keep it in the clubhouse if that’s where the problems originated and festered in the first place?

Utley promised this year’s Phils will “sit down in spring training and figure out, if there were problems, how to correct them.” It was what you expected him to say. But were there issues with clubhouse chemistry? Is that why the Phils -- who, in fairness, also dealt with myriad injury issues to key personnel -- limped to just 73 wins in a hugely disappointing season?

“Last year was an awkward situation for everyone -- for not only the coaching staff, for the players,” Utley admitted. “It was just different -- having a lot of new faces in this room, which I was excited to have. But it just creates a little bit different of a feel. Having Charlie [Manuel], and then Ryne [Sandberg], it wasn’t the best thing for a winning atmosphere. But coming in fresh this year, having guys healthy, having guys that had an experience last year, being ready to go in spring training, having a coaching staff that you know is going to be behind you and with you the whole time, I think that will definitely create a winning atmosphere.”

Utley was quick to qualify the remarks about Manuel. He said Manuel “never made it about him” and that the players didn’t feel added pressure to win for their former manager in the final year of his contract.

But even with the coaching situation now cemented, the idea that stability on that front, combined with healthy players, will “definitely create a winning atmosphere” is a stretch. Nothing is absolute -- not in baseball, and certainly not with a team that has watched its win total dip significantly in each of the last two seasons.

Which brings us back to the chemistry issue. When this club was winning, when it was rattling off all those NL East titles and it was a perennial World Series contender, the Phils were lauded as much for their play as their personalities. They were adored by the town as the group that ended the city’s championship drought and got along in the process. And now? Now -- even though Utley says it’s “not a game of finger-pointing” -- there are suddenly more Phils with extended digits than ever before.

“Winning cures a lot of different things, and losing can really get tiresome, if you will,” Utley said. “So, yeah, it’s not a good environment when you lose … do you have a good clubhouse? Does that create winning? Or does winning create a good clubhouse? That’s a question we could all debate all the time.”

We could debate it all the time, and it seems as though we will. The Phillies will report to spring training in a month -- but that’s not quite the same thing as showing up together.