Sandberg offers Phillies hope

Phils manager Ryne Sandberg must find a way to get more wins out of an aging team that has lost its spark. YONG KIM / Staff
Phils manager Ryne Sandberg must find a way to get more wins out of an aging team that has lost its spark. YONG KIM / Staff
Posted: January 14, 2014

In exactly one month, pitchers and catchers will walk out of the Bright House Field clubhouse and cross over to the Carpenter Complex for the Phillies' first official workout of spring training.

It's understandable if that sentence doesn't rev your hunger for the start of baseball season in quite the same manner it once did. The Phillies are coming off their first losing season since 2002 and, in the blink of an eye, have gone from a team with four aces to one with two aces, no Roys, an unknown Cuban, and a stable of No. 5 starters.

The debate about whether the Phillies are getting old is over. They are old and got older with the offseason additions of rightfielder Marlon Byrd, 36, and starting pitcher Roberto Hernandez, 33, the team's two primary free-agent signings from outside the organization. You can hang onto the hope that they are not too old to make one more postseason run - everybody in the front office certainly is doing so - but by the end of this season there will be a clear-cut answer to that question, too.

Despite all the angst that will accompany the 2014 Phillies to Clearwater, and despite the recent Boston radio call from closer Jonathan Papelbon for better clubhouse chemistry - file that in the pot-calls-kettle-black bin - there are legitimate reasons to monitor and be excited about this team as it prepares for the season. The list is topped by manager Ryne Sandberg.

Perhaps because he arrived in the middle of last season, the buzz surrounding Sandberg's first spring training as the Phillies' manager has fallen somewhere between mild and muted. There was genuine enthusiasm when Chip Kelly started his first training camp with the Eagles in July even though the 2012 Eagles had been every bit as bad as the 2013 Phillies.

Sandberg, 54, will not have that benefit, but he should, because his resume is as impressive as the one Kelly compiled with Oregon before joining the Eagles. Sandberg had a winning record in five of his six seasons as a minor-league manager and twice took his teams to the league-championship round.

"I think he's going to be a very important factor for us," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said last week. "Without being disrespectful to Charlie [Manuel], any new manager or coach is going to be a huge factor, and I really like the staff and the people we assembled to support him."

Quantifying the value of a manager is not easily done. For all the Phillies fans who loved Manuel, there was a group of others who thought he was a bumbling stooge who lucked into the 2008 World Series title. There's also a school of thought that a manager only impacts a handful of games per season with the moves he makes and that overseeing the human beings inside the clubhouse is the most important role, which is the part that Manuel mastered.

No perfect science will ever exist to determine such immeasurable attributes, but we can tell you that the recent history for first-year managers has been good. Of all the baseball trades made last season, it could be argued that Boston's acquisition of manager John Farrell from Toronto was the best. The Red Sox went from last to first in the American League East, improved by 28 wins from the year before, and won the World Series.

Look at the most recent managerial changes for each team in baseball and you'll find that 20 of the 30 improved in win totals the next season, including five by more than 20 games. Five of the 10 managers who did not show improvement in their first seasons - Ron Washington with Texas, Joe Girardi with the Yankees, Joe Maddon with Tampa Bay, Mike Matheny with St. Louis, and Bruce Bochy with San Francisco - have since led their teams to the World Series.

Three of the last five managers to take over a team in the middle of the previous season, as Sandberg did last year, have gotten immediate results the following year. Kirk Gibson led Arizona to the playoffs with a 29-win improvement in 2011, Bob Melvin had a 20-win improvement with Oakland in 2012, and Washington's Davey Johnson won the National League East with an 18-game improvement in 2012.

Some serious challenges lie ahead for Sandberg and the Phillies. Papelbon, while being part of the problem in the clubhouse, isn't off base about his chemistry observations.

"I think more than anything, Pap wants to win," Amaro said. "I think the clubhouse stuff will be straightened out. If he thinks there is an issue with the clubhouse, that's his issue. I'll put our clubhouse against any in baseball, and they can create their own clubhouse. It is theirs and Ryne's, and I think the tone will be set in spring training. If it becomes an issue, I'm sure it will be addressed by Ryne."

It should be the first issue addressed by Sandberg, a man who believes in doing things right 100 percent of the time.

"He's a different kind of personality," Amaro said. "Ryne likes to joke around, but he's business when it's necessary. He believes in having fun and enjoying yourself, but he also believes you should do your job. He implemented a couple of different rules at the end of the year, and I think the players responded well to it. Hopefully, it continues. He believes in treating them like men."

Many of them are older men, and the new manager has to find a way to get them to win the way they once did.


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