Manuel's great run shouldn't have ended this way

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Manuel's great run shouldn't have ended this way

It did not have to end this way.

It should not have ended this way.

The most successful manager in Phillies history, the man that brought tears to fans’ eyes when he shouted, “Hey, this is for Philadelphia! This is for our fans!” back on that magical night in October 2008, was fired Friday (see story).

Charlie Manuel is out.

Ryne Sandberg is in.

And it didn’t have to happen this way.

Let’s make something clear here: This day had been brewing since March 2011 when Manuel signed a two-year contract extension with a year to go on his existing deal. On that day, all parties -- from the front office to Manuel -- acknowledged that there would be no talk of another contract until this one was finished. Manuel even made a point to say he’d be close to 70 when the deal was up and he’d take stock of himself and his life at that time before deciding how he’d proceed in his career.

From this seat, that always seemed to be tacit acknowledgment by Manuel that he’d move on after the 2013 season and hand off, head high, to a younger man as the organization changed course.

This spring, Manuel made some noise about wanting to manage beyond this season, but that was probably just the proud, tough guy in him talking. Manuel never took kindly to suggestions that he was weak, so whenever questions about his lame-duck status came up, he handled them by digging in and defending his record instead of shrugging and saying, “We’ll see what happens.”

That’s just Charlie.

But deep down inside, Manuel knew he was not going to manage beyond this season. He’s a smart baseball man and knows organizations have to occasionally churn the mix and it was going to be his turn in October -- unless this aging team somehow pulled off another World Series title. He knew his expiration date had been stamped the day he signed his extension. And he knew it more than ever in recent weeks when the losses piled up and the writing on the wall was in big, bold letters.

Manuel meant it, meant it from the bottom of his surgically-repaired heart, that night when he said, “Hey, this is for Philadelphia! This is for our fans!” On the best night of his professional life, he dedicated it all to the fans, the real lifeblood of an organization because it is from them that all revenues spring in this business called baseball.

Manuel handled his firing with class Wednesday. He said he was mad not because the front office had given him a leaky bullpen and failed to upgrade it at mid-season, but because he lost his nine-year hold on the best seat in the house. Manuel didn’t just watch the rebirth of a dormant franchise from that seat, he, along with others, many others, helped lead it. Five division titles. Two National League championships. A World Series title. Immeasurable red-pinstriped good will spread while shopping at Wegman’s or eating breakfast at Ponzio’s -- hey, this guy said it himself, he’s a "peoples person." For all these reasons, Charlie Manuel deserves better than this.

He deserved to finish this road-to-nowhere season, tip his cap and head off to wherever he chooses, another team, a front-office adviser’s position, retirement. He didn’t deserve having the word “fired” attached to his name. (Though he has been offered a position with the franchise, he was fired as manager and he made that quite clear Friday.)

Manuel deserved better than this, but he didn’t get it because, in the irony of ironies, his players let him down. A number of them, not all of them, but enough to make a difference, have mailed it in for the past month. And why is that ironic? Because Manuel was just about the best players’ manager there is.

Why now?

Why not let his contract run out?

GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said that once he decided Manuel wouldn’t be back in 2014 he didn’t think it would be fair on Manuel to wait. He mentioned that he wanted some time to evaluate Sandberg, the interim skipper.

Here’s the real reason they did it now:

“Because we sucked,” one player said.

Yeah, the Phillies have been beset by injuries, and, yeah, they have a bullpen made up mostly of guys that have been at Triple A this season.

But is this really a 5-19 club?

That’s what the record was since the All-Star break entering Friday night’s game.

This team is not good. But it’s not that bad either.

Some of the players on this team never came back from the All-Star break. Some of them stayed on vacation. Sandberg indicated that when he said his first order of business would be to “remind” the players that they are “major leaguers” and every game is “meaningful.” Pressed on that point, Sandberg admitted he’d seen “lackadaisical” play recently. Cole Hamels, who has pitched brilliantly since the All-Star break, concurred with Sandberg.

“It’s true,” he said. “I’m as guilty as anybody else. We really have to focus a lot more on what we have to do out on the field because we have to do it the right way. Charlie preached it, but we weren’t doing it.”

Does that comment suggest that the players were tuning out Manuel? Sure it does. But a pro doesn’t need to be reminded to show some pride in how he plays. A pro should be embarrassed by a run like the Phillies have had. A pro, or group of pros, should have found it within himself/themselves to turn things around so that at the very least the manager who always had their backs could have exited gracefully at the end of the season and without the word “fired” next to his name.

Sandberg has work to do in the clubhouse. It is not a happy place. Aside from a pocket of young guys with eager eyes and hopeful futures, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of togetherness. There is finger pointing. The fun is gone. That’s understandable because losing is not fun. The lack of togetherness is also somewhat understandable considering that Jonathan Papelbon recently indicated that he did not come here for this. Those comments did not sit well with a number of players who wondered, whatever happened to We’re all in this together? In this summer when we pray for Darren Daulton, a man who led a great Phillies team with those words, that concept seems to have escaped the team’s closer. The clubhouse has been a dour place ever since Papelbon’s self-serving comments and the clubhouse, as they say, leads to the playing field.

On the day he spoke out, Papelbon suggested changes were needed from top to bottom.

The Phillies made one at the top Friday.

It did not have to end this way.

It should not have ended this way.

Hey, Charlie Manuel, this thumbs-up is for you!

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

CLEARWATER, Fla. – You hear it a lot at this time of year.

This is a big year for (fill in the name).

The 2017 season will be a big one for a lot of Phillies. This team remains an active construction site building for a better day, and the front office is sitting upstairs making a list of who fits into the future and who doesn’t.

So it’s a big year for Freddy Galvis to see if he can improve his on-base skills and hold off J.P. Crawford.

It’s a big year for Cesar Hernandez to see if his strong second half in 2016 was a young player really getting it, a sign of good things to come, or just a three-month hot streak.

It’s a big year for Tommy Joseph as he tries to build on a nice big-league debut and hold off hard-charging Rhys Hoskins.

But when it comes to establishing oneself as a long-term part of this team’s foundation, Maikel Franco might have the biggest challenge of all among Phillies position players.

Yes, Franco belted 25 homers and drove in 88 runs last year, and those were surely impressive totals for a player of his age (23) hitting in a lineup where he was a marked man with little protection on a team that did not put many runners on base — that .301 team on-base percentage ranked 29th in the majors.

Despite huge upside, Franco’s game has some shortcomings. He is a free-swinger with poor on-base skills — he had a .306 on-base percentage last season and saw just 3.56 pitches per at-bat, ranking him 134th in the majors — and if you’ve been paying attention to what has come out of general manager Matt Klentak’s mouth in his 16 months on the job, you know that he values players who “control the strike zone” — both at the plate and on the mound.

Klentak and his lieutenants in the front office also place a premium on defense and Franco, despite good hands and a rocket arm, does not grade out near the top among major league third basemen, mostly because of his range, in advanced metrics. He ranked 12th out of 18 qualifying third basemen in runs saved (minus 6) last season.

Proof of this front office’s affinity for on-base skills and defensive acumen can be seen in center field and in that $30.5 million bulge in Odubel Herrera’s wallet. Herrera got on base more than 35 percent of the time his first two seasons in the majors and he grades out well in the advanced defensive metrics used by this team’s decision makers. All of this, along with his youth — he’s 25 — and projected upside led the front office to give Herrera a five-year contract extension this winter. Call it a statement of the type of player that this front office is looking for.

Franco can improve his flaws, particularly at the plate. He’s already hard at work trying to do so with new hitting coach Matt Stairs.

But why is it so pressing that he does? Why is this year such a big one for Franco?

Because he is entering his third season as a regular and the front office probably needs to know that the improvement is coming. Even as they construct their roster and prepare for the 2017 season here in spring training, this front office has its telescope out and is peering at future free-agent markets. Club president Andy MacPhail basically said that last week. In 2017, Maikel Franco has to convince this front office not to put Manny Machado in its sights. The superstar Baltimore Orioles third baseman will hit the free agent market after the 2018 season at the tender age of 26 and if you think his projected megadeal will be too rich for the Phillies then think again. Owner John Middleton has promised to spend big again when the team is ready to win.

In December at the winter meetings, Klentak was asked about some of the astronomical numbers being attached to the talent-rich free-agent class that is coming after the 2018 season. Could he see the Phils paying a player $200 million, $300 million, $400 million?

“I won’t put a dollar figure on anything,” Klentak said that day. “Markets develop the way that they develop and player values change over time. But I don’t have any doubt that this franchise will make significant investments when the time is right.”

Investing in a player like Machado could make long-term sense for the Phillies because he has the type of rangy body that often holds up past 35 and he could take his bat to first base when he’s older and done at third. Yes, it would take a long-term deal, probably at least seven years, to get Machado.

Franco can throw cold water on this admittedly premature postulating by making improvements at the plate this season.

If he doesn’t show enough improvement or make the front office believe that it will eventually come, he could be a trade candidate and the Phillies could plug at third while they wait to make their run at Machado.

Franco knows his shortcomings and is working on them.

You could see it in batting practice Monday as he consciously tried to drive balls to right-center.

You could see it Friday as he stood in the outfield and talked hitting with new teammate Howie Kendrick. Kendrick mimicked a hitter driving the ball up the middle. Franco then did the same thing and nodded.

“I love to hit and sometimes I get excited,” Franco said. “I am concentrating on being more selective and using the middle of the field, not trying to do too much.”

Stairs has assigned Franco and Galvis to the same batting practice group as Kendrick.

“Howie has that gap-to-gap approach and I want Maikel and Freddy to see that every day,” Stairs said.

Stairs is convinced that if Franco stays with the approach he will “give away” fewer at-bats and become a tougher out in 2017 “and then you will see the on-base numbers come up.”

Franco needs to make these improvements if he’s going to have a long-range future with a team that is building through the concept of controlling the strike zone.

It’s a big year for him.

And the looming shadow of the ‘man’ in Baltimore makes it all that much bigger and intriguing.

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

TAMPA, Fla. -- Nick Swisher has arrived as a New York Yankees guest spring training instructor and Alex Rodriguez is on deck.

Swisher worked with outfielders Monday during his first day, which came three days after announcing his retirement as a player.

"I never have to worry about an 0 for 4 again," Swisher said with a smile. "It's great to be back."

A-Rod is set to make his initial appearance Tuesday.

"He's going to work with our players," New York manager Joe Girardi said. "Dispense knowledge that he has about how to play the game when he talks to the young kids, some of the expectations about how to deal with it. All the things Alex did well."

Rodriguez and Swisher were also guest instructors with the Yankees instructional league team last fall (see full story).

Giants: Cueto to miss start of spring training to be with ailing father
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Johnny Cueto remains in his native Dominican Republic helping his ailing father a week after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.

The Giants plan to reach out to him to see how he is doing and whether he thinks he will pitch for his country in the World Baseball Classic.

San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy is not worried about Cueto's preparation. The right-hander has been throwing and working out regularly at the club's academy. Bochy says the World Baseball Classic is "starting to cause a slight concern."

Cueto signed a $130 million, six-year contract before last season. He went 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA and five complete games in 32 starts last year (see full story).

Red Sox: Moreland not worried about replacing Ortiz
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mitch Moreland knows he's likely the only new player in Boston's lineup since David Ortiz retired at the end of last season.

He's just not listening to those who say he needs to replace Big Papi's lofty production.

"I try not to hear it because there's no replacing that guy," said the 31-year-old first baseman, who signed a $5.5-million, 1-year deal with the Red Sox during the offseason.

"I think it's going to be more of a team effort," he said. "Obviously we picked up two big arms as well, and it's a very balanced club."

After playing his first 6+ seasons in the majors with the Texas Rangers, Moreland is with a new organization for the first time in his career. So far, he said, the move has been smooth (see full story).

Mariners: Paxton expected to have a big year
PEORIA, Arizona -- Forget the batter's box, pitching mound or anywhere else between the chalk lines of a baseball field.

According to Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais, the location of one of the biggest obstacles blocking a player from consistently excelling isn't on the diamond.

"A lot of it with that last hurdle is between your ears," Servais said at the Peoria Sports Complex.

Servais believes starting pitcher James Paxton cleared that bar last season, and the Mariners are expecting the 28-year-old left-hander to be a major contributor in 2017 for a team that looks to end Major League Baseball's longest current postseason drought.

"He is one of the guys ready to take the next step and be a real anchor in our rotation," Servais said.

Paxton is preparing to improve on his 6-7 record and 3.79 earned run average of 2016. He enters spring training locked into a spot in the starting rotation. That puts him in a different position than in a year ago, when he was battling for a spot (see full story).