By Joe Giglio
Philadelphia Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg is attempting to juggle a difficult task during his first full season as a big league manager: Learning on the job while keeping an older, flawed roster in contention.
On the surface, the former Hall of Fame second baseman has done an admirable job. Despite injuries, inconsistent bullpen production and growing pains from young players, the team entered Thursday’s series finale in Miami just three games behind the NL East leading Braves in the all-important loss column.
While 43 games and early-season standings in an unimpressive division are far from enough to evaluate a manger on, some of Sandberg’s decision making in 2014 should be enough to cause concern among Phillies fans.
Thanks to the handy work of general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., the Phillies roster has very little margin for error. In order to coerce every possible victory out of this team, risks are necessary on a daily basis.
When those risks involve lineup changes, defensive assignments or playing time decisions, Sandberg deserves the benefit of the doubt and time to work through his philosophy and style on the bench.
However, when it comes to how Sandberg has used his most important pitchers, it’s fair to question how he’s conducting business. From Cliff Lee to Cole Hamels to the promising bullpen arm of Jake Diekman, Sandberg’s mistrust in the backend of his pitching staff is evident.
More importantly, it could have long-lasting effects on the franchise.
On May 11, Hamels was allowed to grind through a 133-pitch start at Citi Field against the New York Mets. When Jonathan Papelbon’s “soreness” and unavailability became the story later that day, few took notice of Sandberg’s decision to allow a franchise anchor to labor through a career-high pitch count.
Although Hamels pitched exceedingly well in his next outing and showed no ill effects from the 133-pitch game, putting a $140-plus million dollar arm at stake in May seemed like a short-sighted decision.
On April 16, Sandberg watched Lee throw a career-high 128 pitches in a complete-game effort against the Atlanta Braves. While Lee’s entire career has been littered with durability and long starts, the veteran lefty recently told reporters that soreness in his elbow developed after that outing.
Prior to the series finale in Miami, Diekman had racked up 21 outings out of the Phillies bullpen. With an inordinate amount of off days littered throughout the early-season schedule, Diekman had ample time to rest. Yet, with a stretch of 20 games in 20 days commencing, Sandberg chose to deploy the 27-year-old for two innings in a series-opening game in Miami.
Defending Sandberg’s decisions in the name of winning baseball games is easy, but there’s more to the manager’s chair than day-to-day results.
In a perfect world, the Phillies could find a way to win 87 games this season, capture an unpressive NL East and head back into October baseball with a dangerous club. Of course, this isn’t a perfect world or close to a perfect team.
By pushing important arms, Sandberg is risking the present and the future.
With the future of Lee’s elbow in doubt, any chance for Amaro to recoup value or young players in a future trade now seems as far-fetched as ever. If Hamels is pushed too hard in 2014, the idea of building a rotation around him in 2015 and beyond could be compromised. Diekman’s future — as an impact lefty reliever and heir to Papelbon’s closer throne — could be put in jeopardy.
If Sandberg pushes every button correctly, the Phillies have a chance to stay in the race all season.
If some of those buttons are pushed too hard, however, a fourth-place finish this summer will be the least of the franchise’s worries and Sandberg’s entire managerial tenure in Philadelphia could be compromised.
Joe Giglio is a host on WIP and WFAN, and covers MLB as a Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Find him on Twitter @JoeGiglioSports. Catch Joe’s next show on WIP Thursday night at 10 p.m.