The setting was perfect. Phillies president Andy MacPhail was at a panel discussion, of all things, an event for contemplating complex ideas about sports in the 21st century. This was November 2015. Sam Hinkie was still at the peak of his tanking powers with the 76ers, and less than two weeks earlier, the Phillies had hired a new general manager, Matt Klentak, who seemed a junior version of Hinkie: a bit younger but offering his own open-ended plan to repair a franchise.
After 2011, the Phillies had quick-fixed their way from the top of the National League East to its bottom, and Klentak was making no promises and establishing no firm timetables for a baseball renaissance here. He was asking everyone, really, to trust another process. Unlike Hinkie, though, Klentak had, in MacPhail, a boss and a mentor within his organization to back him up, to lend him credibility. MacPhail had shaped the Twins into two-time World Series champions, the Cubs into a playoff team and had laid the groundwork for good things with the Orioles. He had taken bad baseball teams and made them contenders, and he trusted that he and Klentak could do it again. After finishing his presentation that day, he bristled at the suggestion that the Phils were beginning what was necessarily a long-term rebuilding, that their ownership would blanch at the prospect of more years of subpar baseball.
“Who knows what long-term is?” MacPhail said. “They understand exactly where we are, how we got there, and what needs to happen to get ourselves back. Matt’s best quote when he was introduced as GM was, ‘The players are going to dictate when you make that reinvestment.’ There’s no chart on our wall that says, ‘In year three, we do this. In year two, we do this. In year four, we do this.’ You’re going to look and see what you have and act accordingly.”
On the chart that doesn’t hang on any wall in the Phillies’ executive offices, this season would be Year Three of the rebuilding, and the months before it have marked, for Klentak, a departure from the pure patience he had displayed since his hiring. There were no placeholder acquisitions, no wing-and-a-prayer chances taken on veterans such as Michael Saunders or Peter Bourjos. Instead, Klentak signed players and spent money (in the short term) in the name of making the Phillies more competitive right away: $34.25 million on relief pitchers Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek, three years and $60 million for first baseman Carlos Santana, three years and $75 million for a top-of-the-rotation starter in Jake Arrieta, a spot on the opening-day roster and a six-year deal with three club-option years for uber-prospect Scott Kingery.
“In any of the player-acquisition arenas, it’s all about what you’re passing by,” Klentak said. “In the early stages of a draft, or with your top expenditures internationally, or with your top expenditures in free agency, we not only want to make sure it’s a talented player, but it’s a healthy player. It’s a player whose makeup and leadership fits into our group, players who are more than one-dimensional.”
To hear John Middleton, the Phillies’ principal owner, tell it, these were the sorts of additions and changes that Klentak has wanted to make since taking the job – that Klentak’s nature really is to move and shake.
“Matt’s not somebody you have to push, which is good,” Middleton said. “It’s always easier to pull somebody back, to restrain them, than it is to light a fire under them. The fact that Matt is aggressive is good, but he seems to have exercised good judgment about being appropriately aggressive vs. recklessly aggressive. And he does a good job of balancing near-term and long-term organizational needs.”
Based on how the roster looks now, it appears Klentak is still trying to maintain that balance as best he can. It’s not as if the Phillies are loaded with sure things. They still have to find out if Rhys Hoskins really is an elite power hitter, if Jorge Alfaro is a legitimate starting catcher, whether manager Gabe Kapler can keep the members of an overcrowded outfield happy, whether any of their young starting pitchers can earn steady places in the rotation behind Arrieta and Aaron Nola. The development of some of those players, combined with the sickly condition of the Braves and the Marlins, was enough to persuade Klentak and MacPhail that it was time to ask Middleton to open his checkbook. But the Phillies are hardly, in the parlance of our time, going “all-in” in 2018, at least not as of now.
Things can change, though, and one of the more interesting story lines to track this season will be whether the Phillies give Klentak reason to do something he hasn’t yet as their GM: make a major midseason trade to boost their chances of reaching the playoffs. He and MacPhail have put the organization in a position to be flexible. If the Phillies prove they’re not quite ready for contention, they’re young enough to bide their time until the 2018/2019 offseason and that enticing free-agent market. But if they exceed expectations through the season’s first three-four months – if a wild-card berth, or something more, is within striking distance – then the truest validation of Matt Klentak’s bona fides as their GM will be nothing so intangible as Andy MacPhail’s support at a conference of ideas. It will be whether he can make the kind of move that matters in the middle of a pennant race.