CLEARWATER, Fla. — Gabe Kapler will gather his players — all 60 of them — next week on the first full day of spring training and deliver a message to open his first camp as a major-league manager. Kapler will ask his team to be bold and fearless and to play with conviction. And then the Phillies manager who is fueled by confidence will tell them one more thing.
"We can win," said Kapler, the man hired to turnaround a team that has averaged 95 losses over the last three seasons. "It's not like a delusional statement. It's more like we all take that small step forward. We all get a little bit better. We all develop just enough where we surprise people."
Kapler is well aware of the struggles the Phillies faced last season. He also knows he is guiding baseball's youngest team which had roughly a .500 record in the second half and committed $94 million this winter on improvements and could still add a starting pitcher. His team, Kapler said, just needs development.
"I think if everybody on our roster takes a small step forward, we have an opportunity to shock people," Kapler said. "That's the message we're going to convey in camp."
Kapler will open spring training Wednesday with the first full workout for pitchers and catchers. His camp will include later report times to ensure players are rested and short modified practices to prepare player's muscles for the rigors of the season. It will be different but the key will be the development of the players.
The Phillies, if they are to fulfill the manager's wishes, must develop. Maikel Franco needs to prove he's a piece. Rhys Hoskins needs to build off his rookie campaign and J.P. Crawford has to live up to his prospect billing. Aaron Nola needs to emerge as an elite arm and the other four starters — whoever they are — have to pull their weight. They all need to develop.
Kapler said he believes the Phillies have a legitimate shot to contend for a division title, a feat that would require roughly 30 more wins than last season. Competing for a wild card or even finishing with the franchise's first winning record in seven seasons might be more attainable. He expects his team to be "very competitive when September rolls around" and be "fighting for the National League East."
"I don't think there has to be any major declaration made here," Kapler said as he made what seemed like a major declaration.
Kapler's goals for the season are as bold as he hopes his players are. He settled last week in a small Tampa wine bar to watch the Super Bowl and was reminded of his team. The Eagles entered the season with modest expectations and finished as world champions because their young players developed. It is nights like that Kapler thinks of when he says he believes his team can win.