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

charlie-manuel-4.jpg

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!

Breaking down the best and worst moves at MLB's winter meetings

Breaking down the best and worst moves at MLB's winter meetings

Five more thoughts as baseball's winter meetings wrap up:

1. What now for McCutchen?
The hottest name as the winter meetings began this week was Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates' perennial All-Star centerfielder who had a .404 on-base percentage from 2012-15 with four straight top-five MVP finishes before falling off a cliff in 2016.

McCutchen hit 40 points worse last season as his bat and legs slowed and his approach deteriorated at times, perhaps out of frustration. There's been some speculation he was playing hurt.

The Nationals were the team most connected to McCutchen, but after failing to work out an agreement with the Pirates and losing out to the Red Sox for Chris Sale, Washington ultimately ended up trading for White Sox CF Adam Eaton.

So, what now for Cutch? It seems unlikely at this point he'd return to the Pirates ... would be kind of awkward. He knows his days there are numbered given Pittsburgh's payroll situation, and he hasn't yet accrued 10-and-5 rights. 

But Pirates GM Neal Huntington told reporters Wednesday that the intent now is to keep McCutchen.

And McCutchen tweeted this, implying his lips are sealed after weeks of rumors.

If McCutchen does eventually end up elsewhere, I don't think it will be the Phillies. There are certainly things to like, and I do believe McCutchen will bounce back in 2017, but at this point in the Phillies' rebuild and at this point in McCutchen's career, he's not the player to alter the organizational course for. 

2. Shrewd Sale
The Sale trade played out exactly as it should have — the team with the leverage scanned the market, found a few potential deals and got maximum value for one of baseball's five best starting pitchers.

In many trades of superstars, you can look at the return package and quickly conclude which team got the better end. Those opinions aren't always proven true — prospects fail, veterans get hurt — but winners and losers are usually identifiable.

In the Sale trade, there was no clear winner or loser. 

Sale is an ace, a pitcher you'd likely rather have start Game 1 of a playoff series than David Price. He's the ideal complement to Price, though in my opinion Sale is more of 1A to Price's 1B. 

Price has exceptional stuff and command but no deception. He has a one-step delivery that doesn't throw a hitter off balance. Sale has maybe the most deceiving delivery of any major-league starter — it's all elbows and knees coming at you, especially if you're a lefty — to go along with elite stuff and usually above-average command. 

They're both lefties but they offer much different looks for a hitter.

The centerpiece of the White Sox return, Yoan Moncada, is considered by many the best prospect in baseball — a big, athletic infielder who's settled in at 3B. He's got all the tools and the type of fluidity in his game that has enticed scouts as long as scouts have existed. 

Michael Kopech is the prototypical young flamethrower, a 6-foot-3 righty who throws a triple-digit fastball with a plus breaking ball. You look at Kopech and see some Noah Syndergaard-like, Justin Verlander-like potential.

Sale should make the Red Sox about five wins better each of the next three seasons. In terms of World Series odds, the Red Sox may enter 2017 on an even plane with the Cubs. 

And two or three years from now, Moncada and Kopech could be two of the top young players in baseball. This trade made a lot more sense for the White Sox than acquiring Victor Robles and Lucas Giolito from the Nationals. Both are intriguing prospects, but the Moncada-Kopech duo has more talent and upside.

The conversations between the White Sox and Nationals regarding Sale ultimately led Chicago to acquire Giolito as part of the package for Eaton. 

The White Sox have done very well this offseason in acquiring three, maybe four top prospects. Moncada is a big-time building block, and the return for Eaton of Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning gives Chicago three right-handers with enormous upside.

3. No clue what the Marlins are thinking
For the better part of two weeks, the Marlins had been linked to Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen, the two best closers on the market and probably the two best closers in baseball. 

Chapman agreed late Wednesday night to a five-year, $86 million contract with the Yankees, by far the largest ever for a closer.

ESPN's Jayson Stark reported Tuesday night that Marlins owner/money man Jeffrey Loria had given his front office the go-ahead to sign either closer. Right now, that leaves just Jansen.

The question is why? The Marlins are not an elite closer away from winning the NL East. Adding Jansen will not catapult this team ahead of the Nationals or likely the Mets. The Marlins might not even be an elite closer away from a wild-card spot. 

Miami is still trying to pick up the pieces after the death of Jose Fernandez. The tragic loss has left them with a middling rotation, which right now includes Wei-Yin Chen, Edinson Volquez, Adam Conley, Tom Koehler and Jeff Locke. 

That rotation isn't leading you to October, not unless Giancarlo Stanton actually plays a full season and the Fish avoid regression from guys like Marcell Ozuna, J.T. Realmuto and Martin Prado.

Great New York Post columnist Joel Sherman also questioned Miami's approach this week, opining that the Marlins would be better off buying two lesser free-agent relievers like Koji Uehara and Brad Ziegler at the one-year cost of either Chapman or Jansen. It would make sense since Miami already has three good relievers in A.J. Ramos, Kyle Barraclough and David Phelps.

4. Brian Cashman's had quite a few months
The Yankees will not enter 2017 as the AL East favorite, but GM Brian Cashman has positioned them so well for the future, better than pretty much anyone could have expected back in July.

When the Yankees traded Andrew Miller to the Indians before the trade deadline, they picked up a top outfield power prospect in Clint Frazier and an intriguing young pitching prospect in Justus Sheffield. When they dealt Chapman to the Cubs, they picked up Gleyber Torres, one of the most well-thought-of shortstop prospects in baseball. (New York also added outfielder Billy McKinney, who could end up being a serviceable .280/.360/.430 type of player.)

And after it all, after transitioning the Yankees from an old, directionless team, Cashman ends up with all those prospects and Chapman.

In recent years there have been several opportunities for a team to re-sign a star player months after trading him for prospects. 

Some thought the Red Sox would do it with Jon Lester after trading him to Oakland for Yoenis Cespedes. 

When the Phillies were considering trading Cole Hamels the first time, before he signed his $144 million extension, the possibility existed Ruben Amaro Jr. would trade him and then try to re-sign him that offseason. 

It almost happened with the Yankees and Carlos Beltran this offseason, before Beltran chose the Astros. 

There have been more examples, but this is the first time I can recall the team selling high on the player, getting the prospects and then also getting the player back. 

Great work by Cashman and the Yankees, who now have an infusion of young talent and still the best eight-ninth inning combination in the American League with Dellin Betances and Chapman.

5. Rockies must trade for pitching
The five-year, $70 million contract Ian Desmond agreed to with the Rockies this week was a stunner because they didn't seem to need more offense. They play in the game's best hitter's park and already have an annual MVP candidate in Nolan Arenado, an underrated stud in Charlie Blackmon, last year's batting champ in D.J. LeMahieu, emerging stars David Dahl and Trevor Story, and Carlos Gonzalez, who has 65 homers and 197 RBIs the last two seasons.

And yet the Rockies added Desmond to the second-largest contract in their franchise's history, behind only that futile six-figure deal for Mike Hampton.

They're also reportedly interested in last year's home run champ, Mark Trumbo. With or without Trumbo, the Rockies right now have the deepest lineup in the NL, one that should still thrive away from Coors Field.

But they've also backed themselves into a corner here of needing to trade one of these talented position players for a top-of-the-rotation arm. 

MLB Network's Jon Morosi reported Thursday that the Rockies and Blue Jays began discussing a potential trade involving Blackmon and 25-year-old right-hander Marcus Stroman. The Blue Jays, as of yet, do not seem inclined to make the deal. Stroman won't reach free agency until after the 2020 season, whereas Blackmon's contract expires after 2018. The difference in cost and years of control seems to be too much for the Jays.

Blackmon, who last year hit .324/.381/.552 with 35 doubles, five triples, 29 homers and 82 RBIs, is the most logical trade candidate for the Rockies because he's starting to get expensive. But the Jays' unwillingness to make that Stroman deal could mean that moving even a player as talented as Blackmon for equal value could prove difficult for the Rox.

Looking around the league, a team like the Indians could be a fit for Blackmon since they have an enviable group of starting pitchers in Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar. Carrasco for Blackmon would seem even, but we shall see.

Phils lose LHP in Rule 5 draft, exit winter meetings balancing present with future

Phils lose LHP in Rule 5 draft, exit winter meetings balancing present with future

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The winter meetings ended Thursday morning with the Phillies sitting out the Rule 5 draft. The Phillies’ roster was at the 40-man limit and that prohibited the team from making a pick.

The Phils did lose one player in the draft as reliever Hoby Milner was selected by the Cleveland Indians. 

Milner, who turns 26 in January, is a left-hander who recently switched to a side-arm delivery. He had a 2.49 ERA in 49 games at Double A and Triple A in 2016.

Milner was eligible for the draft because he was not protected on the 40-man roster last month. The Indians selected him for $50,000. He must stay in the big leagues all season or be offered back to the Phillies for $25,000.

Andrew Pullin was a player the Phillies feared losing, but they hung on to the lefty-hitting outfielder. Pullin, 23, hit .322 with a .885 OPS between Single A and Double A in 2016. A late-season elbow injury prevented Pullin from playing in the Arizona Fall League and factored into the Phillies’ decision to leave him unprotected.

The Phillies selected one player, infielder Jorge Flores, in the minor-league phase of the draft. Flores had been in the Toronto system.

The Phils lost one player, 25-year-old pitcher Jairo Munoz, to Tampa Bay in the minor-league phase. Munoz pitched in the low minors in 2016.

With the winter meetings behind them, Phillies officials will head back to Citizens Bank Park to complete the construction of their 2017 roster. So far this winter, the Phils have re-signed starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson and added outfielder Howie Kendrick and relievers Joaquin Benoit, Pat Neshek and David Rollins.

Remaining on the Phillies’ to-do list is adding a backup infielder – Andres Blanco could return – and deciding whether to pursue a veteran hitter to play a corner outfield spot or give an opportunity to a young tandem such as Roman Quinn and Aaron Altherr. 

General manager Matt Klentak spoke often during the week about that balance he is trying to strike between improving the 2017 club while keeping intact long-range goals.

“Successfully balancing the present and the future is the single greatest challenge that a baseball operations department faces,” Klentak said. “We’ve talked about it all offseason. The decisions that we are making right now about giving playing time to a young player that has cut his teeth in Triple A and needs that opportunity to take the next step as opposed to a shorter-term solution from the outside – that’s one of the main challenges that we’ve run into this offseason.”

Time will tell which way the Phillies go on this matter.