The season of the Phillies is over. The season of Matt Klentak is about to begin. That is what the all-star break means for the limping franchise. One test has been failed badly. The next must go a lot better.
It wasn’t as if the big-league team was saddled with expectation for 2017. Even the most optimistic assessment was decidedly modest. When manager Pete Mackanin said before spring training that the goal was to hang around .500 and then see what happens, it sounded like a reasonable way to look at the season. What it was, as things turned out, was a fantasy on a par with expecting unicorns to ferry relievers from the bullpen.
Hang around .500? The Phils are on pace to finish 54-108, and on merit. They are every bit that bad in nearly every aspect of the game. Additionally, even in a year in which wins and losses weren’t necessarily going to be the measure of development, a few players considered important to the future have regressed, and that has brought the overall plan into question.
So, welcome to the season of Matt Klentak, during which the new-age general manager will really begin to show if he can not only analyze the game, but figure it out as well. Getting a team from where the Phillies are to true contention is a test that makes 3D chess look like checkers. One part of the strategy — particularly for a franchise that isn’t far past its opening gambits — is having a GM who can make the small moves that open up the board for the future. That’s Klentak’s short-term mission before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline and his to-do list is pretty clear.
Forget about something splashy happening at the deadline. The Phillies aren’t in position to trade for real value yet. For one thing, they don’t have much to offer in return and, for another, they need to hold onto the assets that haven’t become disappointments yet.
Klentak won’t be judged by the headline value of his work at the trade deadline. He’ll be judged by his ability to check off the items on his short list of things he must accomplish. What we don’t know is the extent to which team president Andy MacPhail will also be active in the bartering process with other teams, but for the purposes of public consumption, this will be Klentak’s show for the next three weeks.
At the top of the list, and perhaps the easiest chore, is getting a return for reliever Pat Neshek from a contender looking to rent him for the remainder of the season. It was reported that the Phils have at least one standing offer for Neshek, but are holding on to see if the market for him increases as the deadline gets closer.
As with all the deals Klentak will make, or hopes to make, the other side of the trades will be made up of other teams’ prospects or other teams’ disappointments. Much of whether those trades are eventually viewed as successes or failures rests with the scouting department. The scouts are the ones entrusted with judging where the bargains might be found, or at least the small value edges that can pay off down the road. Klentak will have to sift through those reports and opinions, but, remember, he’s been on the job since October 2015. This is his staff, and its performance is part of his job performance, too.
What else? Well, it seems clear the team wants to trade first baseman Tommy Joseph to open the way for Rhys Hoskins to be promoted from Lehigh Valley. Hoskins is showing that his production at Reading last season wasn’t just a ballpark factor — as is outfielder Dylan Cozens’ — and Joseph is in the unfortunate position of being in the way. He hasn’t really done anything wrong, but he’ll most likely be remembered only as the lever the organization used to lift and remove Ryan Howard.
It would be also nice if the Phillies could move oft-injured outfielder Howie Kendrick, but that might be a lot to ask. The addition of Kendrick and Michael Saunders to bolster the outfield for this season has turned out to be a howling mistake. Saunders was released earlier and Kendrick, who is hitting .349 in 126 at-bats, has battled a hamstring injury for months. He hasn’t played since June 27, and probably won’t be activated until next week. If he can get healthy, the 34-year-old Kendrick would be a versatile addition to a contender’s bench. It’s up to Klentak to sell that.
Looking a little farther ahead, the Phillies are going to have to trade second baseman Cesar Hernandez eventually, with “eventually” being before the end of next year’s spring training. Scott Kingery is coming and, even if he’s not ready right now, clearing the spot for him is another of Klentak’s goals. It shouldn’t be that difficult to find a new home for Hernandez, but other teams will also know the Phils need to move him, so getting a return is another test of the general manager.
It’s not a long list, and it’s only the beginning of what lies ahead for Matt Klentak, but what happens or doesn’t at the trade deadline will begin to shape his image as the team’s GM. He has unquestioned support in the organization right now — he, or someone like him, was John Middleton’s idea, for heaven’s sake — but right now has a way of slipping into the past when things don’t get done.
So, mark it down. July isn’t a big month for the baseball team itself, and neither will be August, September or, especially, October. It’s a kind of big month for the general manager, though, and the season is now all his.