Earlier this offseason, we wrote over at Phillies Nation about the possibility that if the Phillies were willing to kick the can - a few months or even a year - on hiring their next head of baseball operations, Theo Epstein could become available.
Certainly, it appears that the Phillies are considering kicking the can on the decision until after COVID-19, if not altogether following that strategy. However, there's no evidence currently that the Phillies are holding off on constructing their front office because they are waiting on Epstein or anyone else.
ESPN MLB Insiders Buster Olney and Jeff Passan discussed the uncertainty surrounding the future of the Phillies' front office on "Baseball Tonight," and both sound as perplexed as most fans of the team currently are:
Passan: There's a lot of confusion around the game when it comes to what the Phillies are doing, too, because when you go out and sign Bryce Harper to a $330 million contract, it's almost the expectation that you are going to build around him...and when you have somebody like Alec Bohm coming up and doing what he did last year, it's like the Phillies are close you know they've got Nola, too, they've got Zach Wheeler, too... I almost wonder, Buster, if they're just gonna lay low and start sniping relief pitchers as the market gets flooded and as the prices go down. And if that's part of their offseason strategy to take advantage of all the arms that are gonna be out there and rebuild the bullpen that was absolutely disastrous.
Buster: But the part that's confusing... is, OK, who's implementing that strategy, and whose strategy is that, and is that person going to be in power a year from now? It's pretty clear MacPhail is leaving next year. Klentak was just sort of shoved to the side. Ned Rice overseeing things for now, but it's not absolutely clear that he's going to be the vision for the team in 2022. And why not pick that guy now? There've been some questions about, is this an effort on the part on the part of the Phillies to save some money? That would be insane because the amount of money you'd spend on the incoming head of baseball operations relative to the value of the decisions that are being made right now, the cost, it's not even close, and it's why one baseball executive said to me what the Phillies are doing this offseason is very small-minded.
Passan: "Yeah, and are they waiting out Theo Epstein? I don't think so. I have not gotten any impression that if Theo Epstein leaves the Cubs after this upcoming season, which is the expectation, that he's gonna be jumping back into a baseball job at any point, he might, he might not, but going back to the Phillies, doesn't have the emotional resonance of doing it in Boston, it doesn't have the emotional resonance of doing it in Chicago for the first time in 100 years."
Former Phillies' general manager Matt Klentak stepped down on Oct. 3, and since then, there's been little movement on trying to find a replacement.
Ned Rice is the interim general manager, though it's unclear what his long-term future in the organization is. Jon Paul Morosi of MLB.com reported that the Phillies were "considering" Kansas City Royals' vice president and assistant general manager of player personnel, but that was on Oct. 18, and there's been no follow-up report to indicate that he's been interviewed for the general manager opening.
Of course, if the team plans to hire a president of baseball operations to lead the entire front office, it may not make sense to hire a general manager first. That said, there's been no indication the team is moving aggressively to find a president of baseball operations. Andy MacPhail, the team's current president, is going to step down after the 2021 season, if not sooner. SportsRadio 94 WIP's Howard Eskin reported earlier this week that MacPhail has recommended that the Phillies tab New York Yankees' special assistant to the general manager Jim Hendry for that position, though it's hard to know how much weight such a recommendation carries when MacPhail will be retired in a year.
Having ended iconic World Series droughts in Boston and Chicago, it's not hard to imagine the Phillies would have interest in Epstein if he left the Cubs. And Olney added that he's heard such a move could take place before the start of the 2021 season. But as the two said above, why would Epstein want to immediately jump into a job with the Phillies? Maybe he would for the right price, but he's going to turn 47 next month, so he's still young and could easily take a break for a few years before jumping into his next job. RADIO.COM MLB Insider Jon Heyman has also opined that having accomplished pretty much everything one could hope to as an executive, Epstein could pursue a stake in an ownership group as part of his next venture.
The conclusion you are left with, then, is that if the Phillies still have an opening when Epstein becomes available, certainly they should make the call for him. But nothing indicates there's some master plan where the Phillies are just sitting and waiting for Epstein. And even if they are, that would require a lame-duck front office to make a key franchise decision on J.T. Realmuto in the interim, with no guarantee that Epstein would ultimately be interested in coming to Philadelphia in the end anyway.
Much has been made of MacPhail saying front office candidates may not want to uproot in the middle of a pandemic. But when the Phillies announced the reassignment of Klentak, Middleton perhaps showed his hand, suggesting he wasn't comfortable holding this search in earnest until after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
“Holding Zoom meetings only goes so far, particularly when you’re talking about establishing relationships. What I’ve discovered over the last six months is Zoom is a pretty good way to have meetings with people that you know and that you have relationships with, but when you start introducing new people to each other via Zoom calls, it’s not nearly the same thing. So I think that’s going to play a factor in terms of our timetable. I think we have to be flexible and we have to be nimble. So we’ll go out and see."
The Miami Marlins became the latest MLB team to hire a general manager Friday, so other teams have found a way to manage. Ultimately, though, Middleton is the most powerful person in the organization. And if he's decided to wait for a vaccine and more financial certainty in the world before really pushing through with this search, then it is what it is.