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041817_Phillies-Kendrick_AP Derik Hamilton/AP

Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Howie Kendrick at the plate against the New York Mets earlier this month.

April 18, 2017

For rebuilding Phillies, losing pricy vets to injuries is just the cost of doing business

NEW YORK – Ownership was eager to spend, still not thrilled with the distinction of finishing with the worst record in baseball a year earlier, and the front office understood the need to fortify the major league roster with proven veterans while also not veering from the grand plan that is the Phillies’ rebuild.

So rather than dipping their toes in the uncertain free-agent waters of players seeking lucrative, long-term contracts (Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Bautista, Ian Desmond, Rich Hill, and company) Matt Klentak and Co. sought stop-gap types. A Clay Buchholz here, a Joaquin Benoit there. Howie Kendrick, Pat Neshek, and Michael Saunders.

In addition to being established veterans, the five players (or six, if you included their qualifying offer to and acceptance from Jeremy Hellickson) had something else in common: all were only under contract through the 2017 seasons. The Phillies could walk away after the season, knowing they eased the burden on their younger core by adding established depth to the lineup, rotation, and bullpen.

So when the Phillies placed two of those players on the disabled list on Tuesday, before pulling off a 6-2 come-from-behind win later in the night, one for what could be a one-week stay, the other of the out-for-the-season variety, it really wasn’t that big of a deal –– and that’s aside from the fact that they’re a second division team that won’t be contending for anything other than a better slot in the 2018 draft to land Seth Beer.

Sure, when the Phillies placed Buchholz ($13.5 million, second highest paid player on the roster) and Kendrick ($10 million, third highest on the roster) on the DL on Tuesday, the two moves within the span of six hours involved players that accounted for 21 percent of their Opening Day payroll.

But it’s not like this is 2011 and this was Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard.

Buchholz and Kendrick are highly paid because they were the oldest pitcher and player in the rotation and lineup, respectively. The Phillies youthful roster is full of pre-arbitration eligible players, and thus, players who aren’t making a whole lot of money.

The Phils can absorb the $13.5 million loss that is Buchholz (after 1 1/2 starts this season) just as they swallowed $9 million for Charlie Morton (four starts) a year ago. Frankly, it’s the price major league teams pay for veteran pitchers, the going rate for the most fragile men in the sport (pitchers in their early-to-mid 30s, with decent track records but also a lot of mileage on their arms).

When Buchholz and Hellickson walk as free agents in seventh months and when Saunders and Kendrick do the same (or any of them are traded), the payroll slate will be wiped clean again for 2018. Eventually, the Phillies will attack the free agent market with fervor, perhaps even this coming winter, as they judge when the appropriate time strikes to add to a young core of hitters and pitchers on the big league roster and at Triple-A.

Until that time, the one-year veterans like Buchholz and Kendrick do bring some calculated risk, but any one-year contract, even the ones that account for all of two starts, like Buchholz's, is much, much more desirable than a gruesome multi-year deal the front office can’t escape for three to five years. If you can’t think of any of those the Phillies have had recently then you’re just not thinking.

Players like Buchholz and Hellickson, Kendrick and Saunders, and Neshek and Benoit allow the front office, development staff, and coaching staff to support their major league lineup pieces, like Maikel Franco, and ease the burden on promising bullpen arms, like Hector Neris, and not rush younger, still developing arms, like Zach Eflin and Jake Thompson, into regular big league duty. They allow the players at Triple-A to continue to grow at Triple-A and earn their promotion through their own production, not from major league roster desperation.

Buchholz only bought the Phillies two weeks of patience with one of their young pitchers. Twenty-three-year-old Zach Eflin, one of the first young players the club acquired when they committed to a rebuild 2 1/2 years ago, jumped into Buchholz’s place in the rotation on Tuesday night at Citi Field in New York.

Coming off an offseason when he was rehabbing from surgeries on each of his knees, and a spring training that was slowed from that rehab, Eflin didn’t get much in the way of a minor league warm-up. He was activated from the DL and sent to Triple-A just a week earlier and had all of 10 innings to his 2017 stat sheet.

The rust showed early, as Eflin needed 31 pitches to see how way out of a troublesome, walk-filled first inning. But then he showed off the stuff that earned him a promotion in the first place, the poise he flashed at times late last summer, using just 53 pitches over the next four innings to keep his team in a one-run game.

The Phillies eventually won that game, thanks to back-to-back hits from Saunders and Tommy Joseph and a sacrifice fly from Cameron Rupp to begin a four-run 10th inning, but they surely didn't make it easy on themselves. 

They had a golden opportunity to prevent extra innings when the Mets nearly gifted them a run on a botched pop-up in front of the mound in the eighth. But Freddy Galvis, who hit the pop-up, didn’t run it all the way out, and ended up on first, and not second, and then on third and not home, and eventually stranded there, when Andres Blanco followed with a game-tying (and not go-ahead) ground-rule double.

Eventually, it’s going to be time to bring the hitting equivalents of Zach Eflin up from Allentown and into the lineup this summer. Eventually, it’s going to be time to spend on the can’t-miss, middle-of-the-lineup superstars that will hit the free agent market in the next two years.

Until that time, the rebuild plays out. It’s rarely pretty and it’s sometimes costly, if only for a year.


Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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