“My wife told the doctor that I was depressed, that I had depression that I couldn’t go to the ballpark every day,” Manuel said with a laugh, now able to make light of what was once a solemn situation.
“I didn’t know for sure if I wanted to manage again, but I knew I didn’t want to go somewhere and be a hitting coach or something like that again,” Manuel said. “With the success I had as a manager, I kind of felt like, if I was to go back to the field, it would either be as a manager, or working for somebody that played for me who got a job.”
After five months away from the field, Manuel ultimately decided to take the Phillies up on their offer, signing on as a senior advisor to the general manager in January 2014.
“I wanted to stay in the game, but I also thought, ‘Well, if I stay in the game in some capacity, why shouldn’t it be in Philadelphia?’ Because that’s where I had success as a manager and I already knew a lot of people there.”
As a senior advisor, the 74-year-old Manuel spends much of the season scouting amateur prospects in preparation for the draft, as well as visiting the Phillies’ various minor league affiliates to work with prospects. Each year since 2015, he’s been back on the field in spring training, which is where he feels most at home.
“I go to big league camp, I walk around, I talk to some hitters and things like that,” Manuel explained. “I love to be on the field. I’ve always thought I belonged on the field. At the same time, I love the part about the scouting. It keeps me involved in the game, and I get to watch baseball. In the summer, I get to go around to our [minor league] teams and I get to see our players and I get to work with some of them. I definitely enjoy that, but there’s nothing like being down on the field and being part of the game.”
This spring, Manuel is back where he belongs once more, down on the field each day and working with the team’s hitters. As a result, he’s had an up-close look at the 2018 Phillies team, and he likes what he’s seen.
“I think we’re definitely going to improve this year,” Manuel said, referencing new manager Gabe Kapler as one of the primary reasons for fans to be optimistic. “I think he’s a leader and I think he’s going to be a good communicator.”
Among the players Kapler will have the chance to lead, a few in particular have really stood out to Manuel during spring training.
“We’ve got an exciting looking bunch of offensive players, and [Scott] Kingery is definitely one of them,” Manuel said of the Phillies’ 23-year-old infield prospect. “He has a chance to be a very, very good player for us. To me, the only thing this kid does, he just plays baseball very good and smiles. He doesn’t talk much, he just goes out there and plays, and he’s got a lot of ability. He reminds me a lot of Chase Utley. He’s got some Chase Utley in him, as far as his preparation and his desire and his will to want to play.”
Kingery isn’t a lock to make the Phillies out of spring training, but even if he only has a fraction of Utley’s work ethic in him, it’s only a matter of time before he’ll join fellow phenom Rhys Hoskins, 24, in the majors. Hoskins only played 50 games for the Phillies last season, but he turned plenty of heads by smashing 18 home runs and 48 RBIs in that stretch, setting a number of major league rookie records in the process.
“Hoskins came up last year and made an impact at the end of the year, and if he keeps the same demeanor and the same work ethic, and just how he thinks about the game and how he goes about it, I don’t see any reason in the world why he can’t continue to be a big productive hitter at the major league level,” Manuel said.
Manuel also tabbed first baseman Carlos Santana, who the Phillies signed to a 3-year deal in December, and catcher Jorge Alfaro, who has been in the team’s system since 2015 but is poised to earn a full-time MLB role this year, as players to watch this season.
While it’s the Phillies up-and-coming hitters that have Manuel the most excited, he’s also hopeful regarding the Phillies’ pitching staff.
“In our bullpen, we signed [Pat] Neshek and [Tommy] Hunter and we’ve got [Hector] Neris. That’s pretty good at the back end of our bullpen,” Manuel said.
As for starting pitchers, Manuel believes newcomer Jake Arietta—signed in March with spring training already well underway—will be a big help, and he’s also been impressed with returning youngster Aaron Nola.
“Nola looks like he’s definitely ready to settle in and be the pitcher that we think he can be,” he said. “He’s having a big spring.”
In addition to the more established pitchers on the Phillies’ roster like Arietta and Nola, Manuel believes some of the team’s pitching prospects will make names for themselves as MLB players in 2018.
“When we traded Cole Hamels and Ken Giles, we got quite a few pitchers in those two deals. In the last couple years, we’ve been sitting and waiting for some of these guys to step forward and kind of really prove they could pitch out of a big league rotation, and I think this year, somewhere along the line, some of our young pitchers are going to step up and become big league pitchers,” he said.
Powerful hitting and reliable pitching should combine to give Phillies fans something worth cheering about in 2018.
“Our team is going to be exciting,” Manuel said. “At the start of the season, if we can just kind of keep up with the league—say, play .500 baseball the first month or so, and get to the All-Star Game—I think the second half of the season you’re going to see our team really improve. And the reason is I think it’s going to take them a little while to come together, because we’ve made quite a few moves, and usually, just to mold a team together and let them really get used to one another, I think that might take a little while. But I think that we’re going to show improvement, and we have a chance to be very exciting.
That optimistic assessment carries a lot of weight, considering this isn’t Manuel’s first rodeo.
“I remember really well, when we got to spring training in 2008, you could tell the players that we had were anxious to get back and start playing. You could feel that aura in the air. When the season started, believe me, we expected to get back to the playoffs and go to the World Series. We were geared and we stayed focused on getting to the World Series.”
“I’d say next year would probably be the year that we really make strides,” he said. “I feel like our team, we still need to add a couple pieces. I think we’ll know pretty much how solid of a team we’re gonna have by the end of this year. I think there’s some things that we need to do to push our team into being a contender, if that makes sense.”
Manuel initially played coy, but he was referring to the unprecedented pool of superstars that could potentially be available via free agency next winter, including Washington’s Bryce Harper and Baltimore’s Manny Machado.
“There’s some big names out there this year,” Manuel acknowledged when pressed. “There’s Harper, there’s Machado, there’s some big names out there. Of course, I do feel like that we could use a couple pitchers, but at the same time, I think that any of those big, proven players are definitely going to add depth and bring a high performance to our team. It’s just kind of who we go after and how hard, and if we could get some of those guys.”
Manuel is confident in the organization’s ability to bring in a few big names to complement the crop of youngsters on the Phillies.
“I like what [President of Baseball Operations] Andy MacPhail and [General Manager] Matt Klentak are trying to do, and also, [owners] John Middleton and the Buck brothers are definitely not afraid to spend money,” he said. “I think that by next year, we would have a team that might have a chance to really contend.”
Only time will tell if the new regime can usher in the same level of success that Manuel’s Phillies saw from 2007 to 2011, but Manuel hopes that’s the case.
“I pull for them and I’m looking forward to this year,” he said. “I want the Phillies to compete, and I want them to compete as soon as possible.”
Photos by Miles Kennedy