CLEARWATER — When Zack Wheeler was shopping for his new baseball home, stability was important. And when the Phillies hired Joe Girardi, that was enough to steer him toward Philadelphia.
“When I saw that he signed here, I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s definitely a nice addition for them,’” said Wheeler, who inked a five-year, $118-million contract.
“And I was lucky enough to join him. … It shows that a team wants to win when they go out and get the best manager available, someone who shouldn’t even be on the market. That definitely speaks loud words."
Wheeler is the third-largest in franchise history, but it’s Girardi who might have been the Phillies’ biggest offseason acquisition. They lured the former Yankees and Marlins manager out of retirement and a two-year broadcasting hiatus.
“Sometimes when you’re in the midst of managing every day and you come back year after year, maybe you take it a little bit for granted that you’re putting a uniform on," said Girardi, the fifth Phillies manager in eight seasons. "So for me, just cherishing every day is important.”
To call last season a disappointment might be an understatement, especially considering the additions Philadelphia made, none bigger than signing Bryce Harper to a record 10-year, $330-million deal.
On May 29, the Phillies were 11 games over .500 and owned a 3½-game lead in the NL East. They finished fourth at 81-81, losing 11 of their last 16 games. A second-straight second-half dive ultimately led to manager Gabe Kapler’s dismissal.
In Girardi, the Phillies now have what Gapler wasn’t: an experienced and well-respected manager who players can inherently believe in. Girardi not only managed the Yankees in the pressure cooker of New York for a decade, winning the 2009 World Series in 2009, he also took the 2006 Marlins and the game’s smallest payroll to the verge of the playoffs.
“When we get hit in the mouth, he knows what to do, he knows what to say,” outfielder Andrew McCutchen said.
For example, last year’s Phillies team developed a reputation for lacking hustle. Kapler benched several players for not running hard out of the box to make a point. Girardi said it’s not that simple.
To him, it’s about ”helping players control their emotions.”
Still, the message was clear early on. One of the team’s first full-squad workout drills was to practice their home run trots, but with an emphasis of hustling out of the batter’s box.
“I think it’s important to grind out every day because you see situations where sometimes games are lost because a guy didn’t hustle,” Girardi said.
What stands out the most is how Girardi grasps the big picture. Seasons probably seemed longer in New York, but he always focused on doing what was necessary for his Yankees teams to be at their best down the stretch. He was in tune with his players — and he dealt with some egos there. Little decisions like giving position players a day off or protecting relievers from overuse paid off.
“The real prize is in the month of October,” said Girardi said, whose 10 Yankees teams went to the playoffs six times and won six postseason series.
“He’s seen a lot go on, so when he’s making a decision, he’s not doing it out of haste," said Phillies reliever David Robertson, who played under Girardi in New York. "He has an idea of what he wants to do.
"Joe’s called on me a lot and I knew every situation he was bringing me into was one he knew I could succeed in.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.