Klen­tak adds to prom­ises with quick plan for im­prove­ment

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - Jack McCaf­fery Colum­nist

PHILADEL­PHIA >> The 2016-2017 base­ball off­sea­son is on, and al­ready the Phillies have made a few things clear.

For one, they will try to do the sub­tle things to im­prove what was an in­ter­est­ing but flawed team last sea­son. For an­other, they will not do that at the ex­pense of their re­build­ing project. And most im­por­tantly, they are not go­ing to do it while in any money-sav­ing panic.

Since fin­ish­ing 71-91 — an eight-game im­prove­ment over 2015 yet a star­tling re­treat since that 2007-2011 dy­nasty — the Phillies have been will­ing to spend. Some­what.

The win­ter meet­ings will be­gin Dec. 4, in Mary­land, just out­side of Wash­ing­ton, D.C. While more can hap­pen there, Klen­tak has said he will not try to force any­thing in this off­sea­son, a hint that the Phillies still be­lieve they are a year or two from re­al­is­tic con­tention. Al­ready, though, John Mid­dle­ton has en­abled, Andy MacPhail has ap­proved and Matt Klen­tak has ex­e­cuted the fol­low­ing:

They im­proved their bullpen by ac­quir­ing for­mer All-Star Pat Neshek in what essen­tially was a Hous­ton salary dump. Neshek had a 3.06 ERA and a 43-to-11 strike­out-towalk line last sea­son, yet for their own rea­sons, the Astros pre­ferred not to pay him $6.5 mil­lion to pitch in 2017 at age 36.

“I think last year we saw for much of the sea­son we were re­ally com­pet­i­tive in save sit­u­a­tions in the sev­enth, eighth and ninth with (Edubray) Ramos, (Hec­tor) Neris and (Jean­mar) Gomez,” Matt Klen­tak said. “It’s a goal of ours this year to re­ally try to be com­pet­i­tive with the en­tire bullpen. We re­ally think Pat Neshek will help us in those ef­forts.” Fig­ure Neris to close, Ramos to set up and Neshek to pro­vide early vet­eran sta­bil­ity, with Gomez leak­ing into free agency af­ter what seemed like a oneyear spike of ex­cel­lence as an emer­gency closer.

They gave Pete Mack­anin what he all but char­tered an ad­ver­tis­ing-sign­drag­ging pro­pel­ler plane to ask for last sea­son, a dig­ni­fied, re­fined, ma­jor-league hit­ter in Howie Ken­drick.

“There may not be a more pro­fes­sional hit­ter than Howie Ken­drick,” Klen­tak said. “He’s the def­i­ni­tion of a pro­fes­sional hit­ter. He’s been steady his en­tire ca­reer. He’s one of the hard­est work­ing guys in the league and he can hit any­where in the lineup and be pro­duc­tive.

“Pete and I have spo­ken over the past sev­eral months. This is the type of player that we re­ally wanted to add to our lineup. I think Howie is go­ing to have a le­git­i­mate im­pact on our young group.”

That Klen­tak could ac­quire any­thing for Darin Ruf and Dar­nell Sweeney should make him the early leader in the next Ex­ec­u­tive of the Year race. But Ken­drick will make $10 mil­lion next sea­son and wasn’t thrilled with his ev­ery­day op­por­tu­ni­ties with the Dodgers. But the Phils were will­ing to pay that money for a 33-year-old, hint­ing again at their de­ter­mi­na­tion to im­prove.

“I think it’s no se­cret as we look at the 2016 sea­son here that we’ve strug­gled to score runs for much of the year, and maybe more specif­i­cally, we’re last in on­base per­cent­age,” Klen­tak said late last sea­son, “and adding vet­er­ans to a rather young club, I think more of­ten than not that’s go­ing to be a good idea.”

They rained $17.2 mil­lion on Jeremy Hel­lick­son for an­other sea­son. For that, they did have dual pur­poses. Had the freeagent right-han­der not re­ceived that qual­i­fy­ing of­fer, the Phils would have gone with­out a com­pen­satory draft choice had he signed else­where. Nonethe­less, they said all last sea­son and proved it with their wal­let that they wanted the pro­fes­sion­al­ism and re­li­a­bil­ity of Hel­lick­son, and for that, they were will­ing to pay.

So that’s $33.7 mil­lion spent on vet­er­ans tar­geted to pro­vide spe­cific and vi­tal roles — bullpen depth, more re­li­able day-to-day hit­ting, and a val­ued in­flu­ence on a young and po­ten­tially spec­tac­u­lar pitch­ing staff. And that was while un­der­stand­ing that they would have to pay Ryan Howard $10 mil­lion to leave and $1 mil­lion to end their as­so­ci­a­tion with Char­lie Mor­ton, who would be com­ing off a torn ham­string.

Yet last week, Klen­tak showed the abil­ity to do that with­out dis­rupt­ing a re­build­ing plan that still seems about two years from com­ple­tion. That, the Phils did by mak­ing their 40-man ros­ter younger, pro­tect­ing Nick Wil­liams, An­drew Knapp, pitch­ers Mark Ap­pel, Ben Lively, Je­suel Valentin, Dy­lan Cozens, Ricardo Pinto, Nick Pivetta, Al­berto Ti­rado, Drew An­der­son and El­niery Gar­cia.

“We know we can’t pro­tect every­body, but we pro­tected as many as we could,” Klen­tak said. Just or­ga­ni­za­tion­ally, I think that’s an en­cour­ag­ing sign. I think it shows that our sys­tem is con­tin­u­ing to pro­duce play­ers.”

With their early off­sea­son be­hav­ior, the Phillies are hint­ing that they are OK with their big-league foun­da­tion, and that it just needed a few pro­fes­sional touches. That doesn’t mean they will re­sist all ac­tiv­ity at the win­ter meet­ings and be­yond. For in­stance, if there were to be enough in­ter­est in All-Star Odubel Her­rera, and the Phils could lure a pack­age of mul­ti­ple play­ers in re­turn, it’s a move they could make while trust­ing cen­ter field to Ro­man Quinn. They may also ask them­selves if Cameron Rupp, who hit 16 home runs, just had a ca­reer sea­son at age 27. If that’s their sus­pi­cion, and if they feel they can re­sign A.J. El­lis as a bridge to the Jorge Al­faro era, they could act.

Al­ready, though, they have been sub­tly busy … and pro­duc­tive.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

Then-new­comer Jeremy Hel­lick­son, here hav­ing trou­bles as the Open­ing Day starter in April, be­came the Phillies’ most con­sis­tent start­ing pitcher over the course of the sea­son. His lead­er­ship on the field and in the club­house moved them to bring him back for next sea­son at a pre­mium price.

CHRIS O’MEARA — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Phillies gen­eral man­ager Matt Klen­tak, left, has al­ready made moves try­ing to im­prove the Phillies for 2017. More may be com­ing at the wineter meet­ing be­gin­ning on Dec. 4.

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