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June 20, 2017

Michael Saunders is gone and Matt Klentak's one-year honeymoon as Phils GM has expired

Sometimes it really is a simple game. You throw the ball and you hit the ball and you catch the ball.

And sometimes you don’t do any of those things very well for nearly three months and, despite your hefty salary, you’re told you’re no longer needed around and that the club has found a replacement for your services.

This is what 30-year-old veteran outfielder Michael Saunders learned on Tuesday afternoon, five months and one day removed from joining the Phillies on a contract that guaranteed him $9 million for one year. Owners of the worst record in baseball, the Phillies parted ways with Saunders, an All-Star with Toronto last season, and reliever Jeanmar Gomez, the former closer who saved 37 games in 2016, by designating both for assignment.

Gomez’s struggles began toward the end of last season. He was replaced with sidewinding left-handed reliever Hoby Milner in the Phillies ‘pen.

Saunders was given 200 at-bats to get his bat going in 2017, but it never happened. He hit .205 with six home runs in 61 games; his .617 OPS ranks 157th out of 163 qualifying big league players and his .257 OBP ranks 161st out of the same 163 players.

A week after expressing faith in Saunders, who has been streaky in his career (look at last year’s first and second half splits), general manager Matt Klentak said that “for where we are as a franchise we thought it was the right time,” to move on from Saunders and turn to a ready-made replacement in Perkins, a fringy outfield prospect who turns 27 in September and, like Brock Stassi before him, earned the opportunity for a big league audition.

The right-handed hitting Perkins was slashing .298/.388/.476 in 63 games at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Perkins’ .388 OBP ranked second-best in the International League among players with at least 200 at-bats.

“(Perkins) has had a really good first half of the Triple-A season, and importantly, he’s done it in areas that are really important to us as a franchise,” Klentak said. “This is a guy who has worked hard at controlling the strike zone, he can play all three outfield spots, he’s a good athlete, he’s a little bit older for a minor league guy. He’s done everything he needs to do. … What we’re betting on is Cam Perkins is going to give us the better chance to win, and that it’s the right move for us organizationally for right now.”

These are trying times for Klentak, not even halfway through his second season on the job. Rebuilds take patience (unless you have a cutesy, catchy slogan fans can grasp onto for a half decade) and the Phillies, in the middle of the third year since committing to their rebuild, are testing that patience of their fans.

It’s difficult for fans to have faith when they watch regularly and see little progress (and, from a win-loss standpoint, they see a team moving backward) from the big league club. They read and hear about prospects, but the reality is most are suspects until proven otherwise.

The Phillies don’t have a marquee star player anyone wants to come out to see at Citizens Bank Park and unless you want to dream on a teenager (Mickey Moniak and Sixto Sanchez come to mind) there don't appear to be any superstars or saviors on the horizon, although there are surely some talented players on the farm (not sure how you can’t like what Scott Kingery or Rhys Hoskins are doing this year).

It’s difficult for fans to keep up with all of the moving parts or have any interest in doing so when the product they pay for at the big league level is, at best, stale, and at worst, dreadful. And when those same fans look at some of the stop-gap players Klentak and his staff have brought in, it’s probably difficult for them to have faith in the men charged with seeing this rebuild through, too.

Is that fair? Probably not just yet. Just as you can’t blame a new college football coach for the players he inherited and have to wait until his own recruits hit the field, Klentak should be given some time to filter prospects onto the major league roster in the next year and see if something takes shape.

There’s a saying around baseball that there is no such thing as a bad one-year contract because, you know, no matter how bad the player performs you can get out from under the contract before long. And if you’re a big market rebuilding team like the Phillies, with very little financial commitment to star players, that saying makes even more sense.

With that said, Klentak may be testing that saying.

 Here is a list of the veteran players (who earned at least $2 million) Klentak acquired via trade or free agency since taking the job two Octobers ago:

 Year Salary WAR 
 Jeremy Hellickson  2016 $7 million 3.2 
 Jeremy Hellickson  2017$17.2 million 0.0 
David Hernandez 2016  $3.9 million 0.2
 Charlie Morton 2016$9 million  0.4 
 Peter Bourjos 2016$2 million  0.4
Clay Buchholz  2017$13.5 million 0.1 
Howie Kendrick 2017 $10 million 0.5 
Michael Saunders  2017 $9 million -0.7 
Joaquin Benoit 2017  $7.5 million  0.1
Pat Neshek  2017 $6.5 million0.9 

It’s not a pretty sight. What’s fair to point out, though, is that these were clearly all stop-gap veterans brought in for a single purpose, to hold a job temporarily or eat up those all-important innings until a younger player is ready for a full-time job or more responsibility.

Perhaps Klentak is able to flip both Kendrick and Neshek for a couple of talented lower-level prospects next month and salvage what’s left of that group, a group when combined with tendering Gomez a contract this winter and re-signing utility man Andres Blanco, accounts for over $85 million in payroll over the last two seasons. 

Heck, Buchholz and Hellickson alone this season account for $30.7 million (which is just $3.3 million less than Zack Greinke makes this year). No, Buchholz-plus-Hellickson equals Greinke is not an equation that will ever compute. 

Even if there really aren’t really any bad one-year contracts, that’s an awful lot of money spent on what’s mostly been mediocre (at best) returns. It actually may do Klentak some good to put his arms around a risky, multi-year contract this winter (through free agency or trade) to earn a bit of a gold star from fans tired of the Jeremy Hellicksons, Peter Bourjoses, and Michael Saunderses.

Phillies ownership is eager to spend bigger. The 2018-19 free agent class is set up perfectly for the Phillies, who will have the most payroll flexibility of any team after this season, with Odubel Herrera owning the only guaranteed contract for 2018 and beyond.

The Phils will add more veterans before that winter, surely. They will promote more prospects by then, too. (Really, more are coming this summer. Even some of the guys you’ve read about regularly).

But any one-year honeymoon period in taking over for Ruben Amaro Jr. is long over for Matt Klentak.

He admitted a mistake on Tuesday by parting ways with Saunders, the $9 million Opening Day five-hole hitter who was one of the least productive outfielders in baseball for the season’s first three months. He brought up a young hitter (and a pitcher, too) deserving of a chance.

But as Jeremy Hellickson, owner of a 4.91 ERA and a $17.2 million salary in 2017, threw the first pitch at 7:07 p.m. on Tuesday, and as he attempted to guide the Phillies to their second win in the last 14 days (SPOILER: it didn't happen), it was just another reminder of the moves Klentak has made that haven’t yielded enough in return.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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