It has been an offseason unlike any other in Phillies history. Sure, there have been managerial changes before. Gabe Kapler is the third since Charlie Manuel’s unceremonious departure in 2013. But Pete Mackanin’s exit after the season was also accompanied by a complete overhaul of the coaching staff, and that is a major detour from the way things used to be done around here.
This was an offseason in which the Phillies talked about launch angles, run prevention and controlling the strike zone, which are dressed-up, analytical ways to say that they need to hit for more power, get on base more often and throw more quality strikes. Not sure why the terminology needed to change. Palmetto bugs are still just cockroaches with good publicity agents.
Here’s what the average Joe wants to know: When will the Phillies be good again?
Predictably, the subject came up Wednesday after the Phillies introduced Carlos Santana, their most expensive free-agent position player since they signed Jim Thome for six years and $85 million in 2003. Both free agents were first basemen previously employed by the Cleveland Indians. Both were brought in to stir some excitement and generate hope for a team going through a long playoff drought.
Thome most certainly did.
“This is the most excitement I’ve seen in the winter around here since Pete Rose came here [in 1978],” said Larry Bowa, who was the Phillies manager at the time of the Thome signing and their shortstop when they signed Rose.
Season-ticket sales immediately soared and Phillies players thought they finally had a chance to reach the postseason.
Santana’s signing did not generate that same kind of euphoria, and Klentak was even more cautious at the 31-year-old first baseman’s introductory news conference than Ed Wade was 15 years ago after he signed Thome.
“I expect us to be the best club we can possibly be, given our personnel,” the general manager said. “We have a lot of young players, and, with that, there’s some uncertainty. We know that. Young players don’t come with the same track record that a veteran comes with. But we believe a lot of those players have a chance to take a step forward this year.”
It is true that young players are unpredictable, but that should not stop expectations from being significantly raised for the Phillies in 2018. Mackanin was daring enough last winter to say that the Phillies’ goal should be to play .500 even though the team lost 91 games the year before. It did not happen. In fact, the Phillies lost five more games in 2017 than they did in 2016.
But that had more to do with bad signings by the general manager (Michael Saunders, Jeanmar Gomez, Clay Buchholz and an unable-to-stay-healthy Howie Kendrick) than the work of Mackanin and his coaching staff.
In fact, with an influx of young players, the Phillies went 37-38 after the all-star break. Despite that end-of-the-year run, Klentak and Kapler decided that only one of the coaches from last year’s team (Rich Kranitz) was worth bringing back in 2018.
That’s fine, but the pressure is on Klentak and Kapler to make sure the young core goes in the right direction.
“I don’t really want to put limitations on what we may do next year,” Klentak said. “But I would expect us to be a more exciting team, for sure.”
To be sure, Kapler and Klentak have some new ideas about the way things should be done. That’s why the Phillies signed Santana to be their first baseman even after Rhys Hoskins hit 18 home runs in his first 18 big-league minutes last season.
Klentak and Kapler believe in position flexibility. They want guys who can play more than one position and they think Hoskins showed he could last season when he started 29 games in left field. Santana, who started his career as a catcher, played five different defensive positions in Cleveland.
“This is going to give us an opportunity to mix and match and put these guys in the best possible position to succeed by matching them up effectively,” Kapler said. “One of the things that stood out to me about Carlos … is absolute selflessness. Absolute flexibility.”
Santana’s resume does not compare to the one Thome brought with him when the Local 98 electricians’ union helped recruit the slugger here 15 years ago, but the switch-hitter does give the Phillies a great on-base guy who will likely hit in the middle of their lineup on most days.
Klentak and Kapler also plan to have an eight-man bullpen this season with the Phillies adopting the trend of relying more on relievers to pitch the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. That’s why their two biggest free-agent pitching additions this offseason have been veteran relievers Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter. They are still in the market for a quality veteran starter, but there is no guarantee that will happen.
The general manager and manager were genuinely thrilled Wednesday with their ability to add Santana to the Phillies’ mix.
“We think he can have a huge impact on our club,” Klentak said. “As long as there are examples like last year’s Minnesota Twins and Milwaukee Brewers … that we can model each other after, we want to do everything in reason to put ourselves in position to excel at the major-league level.”
From now on, excelling should be the only expectation of the Klentak-era Phillies. The rebuilding project has gone on long enough.