LOS ANGELES – There are outside-the-box hires, and then there is Gabe Kapler, the Philadelphia Phillies’ surprise pick as manager, who may be the biggest gamble of the winter. Many view the hire as an all-or-nothing choice – either home run or strikeout. The Phillies see him as the perfect fit for a young team in search of new ideas, but others around the game are convinced they whiffed.
Kapler, a bright, charismatic fellow with a background that includes the front office, broadcasting, an impressive major league playing career and a small sliver of managing, certainly fits the new managerial prototype that boasts a diverse resume, and not primarily a coaching/managing background. If you dig deeper, you find a lot of skeptics, even more critics, and many folks who wonder if this could become one of the most interesting — and destructive — episodes in the Phillies’ mostly conservative history.
From interviews with people around the game, Kapler, who comes to Philly from his job as the Dodgers’ farm director, is a love-him-or-hate-him kind of guy, and the word most frequently heard about his time in L.A. is “polarizing.” One player said there was no middle ground between “worship” and “unqualified” in assessments of Kapler, and that seems to be the reaction around baseball, where some are applauding the hire and others are wondering if the Phillies are in the dark about a successful but somewhat checkered reign for L.A. (To be fair, the Dodgers’ prospects are mostly thriving and helped them get to the World Series.)
Kapler is admired by some but also butted heads with enough Dodgers people to fill out an entire roster — it depends on the source. Word got to the big leaguers that enough of them endorsed external candidate Dave Roberts – including Clayton Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez and others – to affect the process at a time Kapler was seen as the favorite of the Dodgers’ bosses and the early favorite for their managerial job.
Kapler’s big bosses Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ baseball president, and Farhan Zaidi, the GM, do love him, and everyone figured that job was his before a few factors intervened: Dave Roberts blew everyone away in his first interview, managing partner Mark Walter had a great instinct for Roberts, plus those key Dodgers argued that the team hire Roberts. These recommendations wouldn’t be so unusual, except presumably some of those players knew Kapler better; it can be assumed what they heard was decidedly mixed, at best.
That’s what I found, too. One person who knows him well said he found Kapler to be “more persona than person.” Another, a player, said Kapler was fine for him, and that while he could see him blowing someone away in an interview, he frequently couldn’t provide off-the-cuff answers and often responded by saying “let me get back to you” via text. He was “very scripted” in this player’s estimation.
One hard-to-believe story about Kapler: In order to talk to a group of minor league kids about analytics, a subject in which he is expert, he requested and received a rental TelePrompTer to use for his speech. That could be an issue since extemporaneous speaking is a prerequisite for a major league manager.
Kapler certainly had some interesting ideas, some of which he posted on “kaplifestyle.com,” a men’s website of his thoughts. Some of them lean toward the bizarre, and one that won’t be repeated here involves coconut oil. He also had some interesting ideas for the Dodgers’ minors, like building a chicken coop, unvarnished rap music playing in Dodgers offices, having a teammate camp (not so bad), or having “no rules whatsoever.” That one was actually tried for a while and turned out to a little too far outside the box — coaches started to feel powerless.
Kapler by one account fired a couple dozen employees as Dodgers farm director, and by another he upset “more than half the people” he came into contact with. It also came out that Nick Francona, one of his higher ranking underlings and the son of legendary manager Terry Francona, filed a complaint, first with the Dodgers and then with MLB. He claimed that Kapler helped push him out after Francona, a military veteran of six years on the front lines, reached out to Home Base program, an agency that aids veterans, and claimed he was identified as “ruined” by Kapler.
Offers to settle up to $150,000 were made to Francona, according to Yahoo Sports, but Francona was more interested in justice and real issues than money, and with MLB apparently deciding not to act, this is the situation: Unless Francona, who is now with the Mets, opts to sue, it appears nothing more negative may come of it beyond a couple mentions in the press.
Phillies bosses, meanwhile, seem thrilled with their dynamic new hire. One more positive interpretation of Dodgers veterans’ preference for Roberts, at least as far as the Phillies are concerned, could be that Dodgers players had worries about whether he might be too close to the bosses in the front office and, in effect, become a managerial “puppet.” But it’s also possible word had gotten out that Kapler could be difficult based on decidedly mixed views from the prospects.
A few of the Dodgers kids did have a negative view of Kapler, who was nicknamed “The Body” by Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan (pictures of his seemingly unreal physique have appeared on the net) since some saw him as headstrong or even haughty. He certainly had definite views, and one recalled Kapler, whose diet is strict beyond belief, forbidding him from eating certain foods, including meat. One person familiar with the situation says what annoyed them most was him “acting like he was the dude,” meaning a star player.
Friedman and Zaidi consistently supported Kapler (and made calls to recommend him for manager to teams with openings, including the Phillies and Mets, who did not interview Kapler; neither did the Tigers, ultimately), who was a decent former big league player who had smarts and could speak their language (he is very big on sabermetrics).
“We’re very happy for him. And we’re very happy for the Phillies,” Zaidi said. “We think he’ll do really well for them. It’s a big loss for us, and leaves a big void for us. He’s a huge part of what we’ve done. My experience has been very positive. I have no reservations on that, and clearly the Phillies don’t either.”
Kapler’s thinking is often described by Dodger people flatteringly as “outside the box.” The issue, says one player-connected person, was that he acted like “it’s his box.”
Kapler may turn out to be ahead of his time, and a great hire — he has some very great strengths. But it wasn’t a small number of people he had trouble with during his time in L.A. Some see Philly as a team that is also thinking outside the box in making the surprise hire. Others wonder if the Phillies simply have a tin ear.
They took a month to make the hire, stepping outside their rep as a conservative organization. They view Kapler as the right guy for their team, a bright and charming young guy (he’s 42) who fits their very young roster and is a potential home run. They also did extensive interviews to ferret out the stories going around L.A. They felt comfortable he was the right guy among a very eclectic final three that also included Triple-A manager Dusty Wathan and just-fired veteran Red Sox manager John Farrell, who were much safer though less exciting picks. Phillies GM Matt Klentak declined comment ahead of their press conference Thursday, and owing to organizational public relations wishes, Kapler also declined comment.
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