Matt Klentak has stepped down as Phillies general manager.
Klentak led the team’s baseball operation for five seasons. Not one of those seasons ended with a winning record.
The move, announced Saturday afternoon, comes six days after the Phillies finished four games under .500 in a pandemic-shortened, 60-game season and blew a potential playoff spot during the final week of the season.
Klentak had put himself on the hot seat 11 months earlier when he said, “No questions, it’s time to win now.”
According to the team, assistant general manager Ned Rice will serve as interim GM until a permanent successor is hired to oversee the team’s baseball operations.
“I have stated publicly that winning is what matters, not just in Philadelphia but in all cities and in all sports,” managing partner John Middleton said in a statement. “While Matt made many significant contributions to the organization, we did not accomplish our goal of playing baseball in October. Consequently, we have mutually agreed to allow new leadership to head baseball operations.”
The 2020 club entered the year with high expectations and a star-studded roster after spending over $700 million on free agents the last three winters.
It was widely believed that the Phillies needed to make the postseason this year to save Klentak’s job. In that regard, it was good news for Klentak when Major League Baseball expanded its postseason field from 10 to 16 teams, eight in each league, to help owners recoup revenues lost during the pandemic.
Even an expanded playoff field couldn’t save Klentak.
The Phillies entered the final week of the season in control of the No. 7 playoff seed in the National League. They proceeded to lose seven of their final eight games to plummet all the way to 10th place in the league.
“While I am disappointed that we failed to reach our ultimate goal, I am nevertheless very proud of the progress that this organization made over the last five years and of the people who worked so hard to make it happen,” Klentak said in a statement issued by the team. “I am grateful for all of the support that I received along the way from Phillies ownership, friends and colleagues, and our loyal Phillies fans.”
The bullpen was the 2020 team’s fatal flaw. The Phillies lost an MLB-high 21 games in which they held a lead at some point. They had a lead of three or more runs in eight of those games.
Klentak, who did little to address the bullpen last offseason, tried to fix it with a series of trades in August, but the newcomers only made things worse and the bullpen finished the season with an obscene 7.06 ERA, the second-worst in major league history.
Klentak arrived five years ago pledging to build an organization through “waves of pitching.” That never happened. The Phillies did not have the bullpen or starting pitching depth to get through a 60-game season. Yes, there were a couple of injuries in the starting rotation to Jake Arrieta and Spencer Howard, but all teams have injuries. The Atlanta Braves won a second straight NL East title with a starting rotation that was decimated by injuries and a pitching coach, Rick Kranitz, that Klentak and former manager Gabe Kapler pushed aside two years ago.
By the end of this season, the Phillies were relying on Vince Velasquez, picked up in Klentak’s first big trade in December 2015, to pitch important ballgames. Velasquez, who had pitched himself in and out of the rotation for the past two years, was in the picture only because the organization had failed to develop those waves of pitching depth and no one from the system had come up and taken his job.
Even in the final days of the season, the Phillies clinged to the notion that if they could somehow sneak into the playoffs they could be dangerous in a short series because they have three quality starters at the top of the rotation in Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin. Wheeler was a free-agent signing by Klentak last winter. Nola (draft) and Eflin (trade) entered the organization during Klentak predecessor Ruben Amaro Jr.’s time as general manager.
The results of Klentak’s drafts are still playing out, but neither of his first two first-round picks, outfielders Mickey Moniak and Adam Haseley, appear to be impact talents. Moniak was the first overall pick in 2016. Klentak’s third draft produced third baseman Alec Bohm, who was one of the Phillies’ best players this season and is in the running for the NL Rookie of the Year award.
One of Klentak’s chief assignments when he was selected for the job was to build an analytics department. He did that, but it did not translate into a winning season.
Nineteen months ago, Klentak was on firm ground as GM. He landed J.T. Realmuto in a trade in February 2019 and a month later the club signed Bryce Harper for $330 million. In the wake of those additions, Middleton compared Klentak to Branch Rickey and Pat Gillick, two of the greatest GMs in the history of the game. By the end of a disappointing 2019 season, Middleton was overruling Klentak and firing Kapler, the GM’s hand-picked manager.
A year later, Klentak is out with two years remaining on his contract. The team said he will remain with the organization in an unspecified role.
It’s not clear how the organization will proceed in hiring its next general manager, whether it will look for a pure baseball guy, an analytics guy or a blend of the two. The new general manager will inherit a decorated veteran manager in Joe Girardi and a marquee talent in Harper. He will also inherit a couple of big tasks — totally overhauling a bullpen that ultimately cost Klentak the postseason berth that would have saved his job and re-signing free agent Realmuto.
There are other items on the to-do list but those are the big ones for a Phillies club that has not made the postseason in nine years, the second-longest playoff drought in the majors. The Seattle Mariners have not been to the postseason since 2001.