CLEARWATER, Fla. —They are closer than you think, and that is what makes this current moment such an interesting one for the Phillies. Probability says they aren’t merely one player away. But it hardly eliminates the possibility that it is the case.
What to do, what to do?
Look up and down the roster, and you see something different than the past few springs had to offer. There is possibility, and if the thought of it makes you snicker, then you haven’t been paying attention to Major League Baseball in recent years.
Matt Klentak sees it. The positive end of the spectrum of potential outcomes is easier to envision than it has been at any point since he assumed control of the organization’s rebuilding two-plus years ago. At every spot in the lineup, with the possible exception of catcher, the Phillies feature a player who either wields or is expected to wield someday an above-average bat for his position. The first baseman, second baseman, and centerfielder already have multiple seasons of such production on their resumes. The leftfielder hit like a superstar in his first half season. The shortstop and rightfielder require considerably more projection, while the third baseman needs to show that he can still be the better version of himself that we have seen. In all three cases, though, the talent is there. And, with it, the possibility.
“This is my third spring training here,” Klentak said. “This is the first time for me where if you close your eyes and think about it, it’s no longer a pipe dream.”
Which brings us to the moment referenced above. When he met with the media on Thursday, Klentak acknowledged that he had spent part of his morning exchanging cellphone pings with various corners of a starting-pitching market that seems to be shaking out of its unseasonable slumber. From upper-tier free agents like Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, and Alex Cobb to a host of potential top-of-the-rotation arms employed by other clubs, the Phillies have a variety of avenues through which to address the most glaring unknown on their roster.
Another name went off the board later Thursday afternoon, when news broke that the Orioles had reached a deal with a one-time budding star who is now in the midst of a journeyman phase. The terms for Andrew Cashner — a reported two years and $16 million — hardly put him out of the Phillies’ reach. You get the sense that they will consider anything that does not require them to commit money for more than three years. But they aren’t going to spend money for money’s sake, and Cashner might not be any more of a sure thing than what they already have in abundance. Look past his 3.40 ERA and 166 2/3 innings for the Rangers last year and you’ll find plenty of reason for concern, from his injury history to an alarming depreciation in his strikeout rate (from 7.5 K/9 in 2010-16 to 4.6 K/9 in 2017).
The maddening scenario to consider is the one in which the Phillies do nothing and everything goes right. This is more or less the reality encountered a year ago by a couple of teams that Klentak name-checked in his question-and-answer session Thursday: the Brewers coming off a couple of seasons in which they’d averaged 70 wins, the Twins having failed to win more than 70 in five of their previous six. In both cases, a series of breakout offensive performances propelled a team that entered the year in rebuilding mode into the thick of a playoff race. Klentak pointed to both teams as evidence of a future that could be at hand for the Phillies should a variety of unknowns break in their favor. They could also be interpreted as cautionary tales, as one came up just short of the postseason and the other lost a one-game wild-card playoff. For a team with the resources of the Phillies to come up a starting pitcher short would be a tough pill to swallow.
That being said. . .
There are too many unknowns about the viability of the current roster to deviate from the front office’s current policy of fiscal restraint. Signing a top-line starter such as Arrieta to a five-year deal at $20-plus million would win the Phillies a lot of headlines and perhaps some ticket sales, but they’d still have three question marks in the rotation, which is still more than enough to torpedo a solid offensive season.
Would such an addition really move them all that much closer to the finish line they have set for themselves?
“It’s all about playing October baseball,” Klentak said. “And once you get into the dance in October a lot of things can happen. We’re going to do whatever we can do to put ourselves in that position. Again, with the idea that we want to be playing in October for a decade.”
Yes, the Phillies need to figure out their rotation before we assign them a realistic chance at playing meaningful September baseball this season. But it can’t come at the expense of the payroll flexibility that will allow them to optimize their roster once they know for sure what they have.
Unlike past seasons, they will enter this one with some reason to dream. But until they have a better idea of what reality looks like, caution should continue to be their approach.