Klentak adds to promises with quick plan for improvement
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.
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.
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.