Less than two full years after he replaced Charlie Manuel as manager of the Phillies, Ryne Sandberg has resigned, a move that appears to have caught Philadelphia by surprise despite the team's major league-worst 26–48 record and an apparent organizational shakeup looming. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. characterized Sandberg's resignation as "pretty sudden" and announced that third base coach Pete Mackanin will be the interim manager "at least through the weekend."
A Hall of Fame second baseman during a 16-year major league career (1981–'94, '96–'97), Sandberg spent six years managing in the minor leagues for the Cubs ('07–'10) and Phillies ('11–'12) before joining Manuel’s staff as a third base coach and infield instructor. The move was read as an obvious sign that he was the heir apparent to Manuel, the most successful manager in franchise history but one who at 69 years old was not likely to stick around through the team's much-needed rebuild.
Indeed, Manuel was fired on Aug. 16, 2013, with the team 53–67, making it the only season out of nine in which the Phillies were below .500 on his watch. Sandberg was initially appointed interim manager; the team went 20–22 the rest of the way, and within that run, he was given a three-year contract with an option for '17. Alas, he got off to a rocky start in '14, locking horns with prominent veterans such as Jimmy Rollins, Jonathan Papelbon and Ryan Howard and struggling with in-game management as well. The Phillies finished 73–89, the same record as the season before, but they sank into the NL East basement for the first time since 2000.
Philadelphia has fallen even farther this year via the majors' worst offense (3.30 runs per game) and run differential (-122) as well as the game's second-worst run prevention (4.95 per game). In fact, the club is on pace for 105 losses, the franchise’s highest total since 1961, when the team went 47–107 under first-year manager Gene Mauch.
Many of the Phillies’ current problems owe less to Sandberg than to Amaro waiting too long to dismantle a team that has been steadily regressing since making five straight postseason appearances from 2007 to '11 yet maintained the majors' third-highest payroll ($177.7 million) as recently as last season. Amaro traded Rollins to the Dodgers over the winter but has held onto other his high priced stars—Howard, Papelbon, Chase Utley, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels—for far longer than a rebuilding team should. Lee is now injured and untradeable; Utley, who went on the disabled list with right ankle inflammation earlier this week, has been the majors' worst-hitting regular; and Howard is below replacement level for the third year out of four. The team has exactly one regular, rookie third baseman Maikel Franco, with an OPS+ above 100 (he's at 158 via .311/.358/.588 hitting through 159 PA) and two starters with an ERA+ above 100, Hamels (118) and Aaron Harang (113).
As bad as the roster may be, those with the fortitude to watch the Phillies closely have cited Sandberg's tendency to overwork relievers and his treatment of younger, less established players as further marks against him. Last week, as the Phillies were en route to their eighth of nine straight losses in a 19–3 drubbing by the Orioles, the 55-year-old skipper appeared to have lost control of the team completely when outfielder Jeff Francoeur's noble stint as a mop-up moundsman was extended to 48 pitches because the team's bullpen phone was off the hook, preventing another reliever from being summoned. Television cameras caught pitching coach Bob McClure waving a towel to get the attention of bullpen coach Rod Nichols as well as Utley delivering some choice words to McClure during a mound visit to buy some time. Notably, Sandberg didn’t even address the team before announcing his resignation.
For the moment, the team will be guided by the 63-year-old Mackanin, who spent parts of nine years (1973–'81) as an infielder with the Rangers, Expos, Phillies and Twins, and has since served as a coach for several teams, with interim managerial stints in Pittsburgh ('05, 12–14) and Cincinnati ('07, 41–39) along the way. With longtime executive Andy MacPhail rumored to be joining the front office in the near future—possibly to replace Pat Gillick as team president—a bigger shakeup could be on the horizon. That could (and should) put Amaro's job in jeopardy as well, as his contract expires at the end of the season, and he’s given little evidence that he’s the right man to engineer this rebuilding effort.
Indeed, Sandberg referenced the coming changes in the press conference to announce his resignation. Via CSNPhilly's Andy Schwartz:
"It was a dream opportunity for me to put on a Phillies major league uniform, and that's where it really hits hard today as far as making it a difficult decision," Sandberg said. "But with some leadership roles coming up, I think it was important for me not to be in the way with the way things have gone this year, but allow the organization to go forward and really get this thing going."
…"I don't know that I'd be in the plans or not," Sandberg said, "but being dissatisfied with the record and not being pleased with that, really didn't feel like I had too many legs to stand on as far as going forward with any changes."