Let’s start out by acknowledging the obvious: The Phillies’ decision to bring in Andy MacPhail isn’t a solution in and of itself. They’re not just a 27-50 team, they’re an organization whose dysfunction when it comes to player valuation and evaluation seems built into the brickwork. In a game increasingly dominated by teams that have adapted their management culture to be analysis-inclusive, the Phillies have a hard-won and harder to live down rep for being regressive on regression.
So think about it in those terms, because this is a mid-season move: Andy MacPhail is joining a new office full of people who have been doing a job with the Phillies for a long time. He won’t just be looking to fix the roster, or dig in to evaluate the scouting department top to bottom. He will need time to get a sense of who’s a keeper off the field as well as on. That’ll take time, a lot of it, because it isn’t like he has a staff of off-the-shelf solutions who have been in cold storage for the past three or four years. The next several months will be spent evaluating everybody, not just the players, with an eye toward seeing who’s available during the offseason, suits as well as uniformed personnel.
And to do that, you have to give Andy MacPhail the credit for who he is, because that’s a big part of the reason why he got this cleanup job. MacPhail isn’t anybody’s front office genius so much as he’s a man with the established credibility -- the gravitas, even -- to step into this last of the old-school franchises and work within an organization to identify not only what needs fixing, but what should be preserved.
Which is why Andy MacPhail is perfect for this job. Because when it comes to massive, top-to-bottom cleanup jobs, the good news is that this isn’t MacPhail’s first rodeo. When he took over as the Twins’ general manager at the end of 1985, he was stepping into an organization that had been owned and directly operated by the Griffith family and its retainers since 1919 until selling the team in 1984. He kept what was worth keeping and helped the team win two titles, in 1987 and 1991.
Then he took over the Cubs’ organization at the tail end of the 1994 season, he was tasked with cleaning up the public relations disaster of Larry Himes’ brief reign of error, a three-year stretch so depressing that Ryne Sandberg retired mid-career, and that was after Greg Maddux departed in disgust as a spurned free agent. When MacPhail left, he handed off the organization he’d built with his successor, Jim Hendry, having built up a Cubs team that was just five outs away from reaching the 2003 World Series. Leaving the Cubs in 2006, in 2007 he was brought in to push the Orioles franchise back out of the ditch that the Angelos family had driven it into over the previous eight seasons; by the time he left after 2011 the Orioles had assembled the talent and management to contend with over the past four years.
In each of those three situations, MacPhail was taking over an organization that had become a national laughingstock. And in each of them, he left the team better off than how he found it. The only other man in the game with a similar reputation for taking on Superfund Site disaster franchises and getting them stable again would be Sandy Alderson, who cleaned up the post-Finley A’s in the ’80s, took on the Padres during the difficult tail end of John Moores’ ownership of the team, and then lent his credibility to a Mets franchise wracked by the Wilpons’ financial peccadilloes.
And for that reason, MacPhail and Alderson represent unique management assets, the sort of fixers the industry needs when you’re talking about a premium franchise as down in the dumps as the Phillies are. They’re guys who, while they may not have the whiz kid mania that an A.J. Preller can generate in San Diego, can help change an organization’s culture because of the respect they command. That isn’t to say that the next guy in the GM’s chair after Ruben Amaro Jr. is going to be the next Theo Epstein, but after a couple of spins as an executive who helps a franchise break with a bitter past, MacPhail might be the best choice available as the guy to decide who sits in that chair come that day.
The Phillies don’t have to blast to the foundations -- they’ve already dug themselves that deep, if not deeper. Hiring MacPhail isn’t just a sign that, as an organization, they get that, it’s a sign they’re ready to be serious about their future, instead of seriously committed to the memory of that pair of pennants in 2008-09 that get further and further in their rear-view mirror with every passing day. They need to reinvent themselves, and they need to become an organization that people with talent want to work for. By picking Andy MacPhail to oversee that change, I’m optimistic that they’ll get there.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.