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November 08, 2016

At GM Meetings, Klentak sitting pretty at helm of rebuilding Phillies

PHOENIX – Matt Klentak wore an easy smile as he spoke inside a conference room at the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia on Tuesday, on Day 2 of the General Managers Meetings.

And it’s not easy to figure out why the second-year general manager isn’t feeling the pressure from a usually rabid Philadelphia sports fanbase. Among those reasons:

     • The Phillies, while still rebuilding, are on their way up, with no more passed-their-prime veterans weighing down rosters spots or payroll, and a farm system that was recently crowned the best in the game coming along quite nicely.

     • The modern, educated fan can see the benefits of a calculated rebuild, of starting from scratch and having the right amount of patience to see it through. If you don’t believe this, go ask a 20-or-30-something die-hard Sixers fan how he feels about “the process” of rebuilding.

     • The 2016-17 free agent class is not the 2018-19 free agent class. Sure there are some difference makers available, but most are already in their 30s. There simply aren't any one or two free agent superstars that a rabid fanbase is demanding the Phillies to sign, and ready to call them cheap if they don’t make an honest effort.

While Klentak surely wants to put the Phillies in their best position to improve on their win total in 2017, and in better shape to contend in the years to come, he’s sitting in a fairly advantageous position this winter. And his payroll flexibility (arguably the best in baseball) offers him the freedom to really do whatever he wants this offseason, too (like tendering Jeremy Hellickson a very expensive qualifying offer to ensure the team gets a compensatory draft pick when he gets a long-term deal elsewhere).

In short: the Phillies will be players in terms of adding talent to upgrade a mostly limp lineup this winter, but they’re not likely to open the bank vault to rein in a player just for the sake of reining in a player.

“First and foremost, I think when the time comes to make a significant investment, I don’t have any fear that the Phillies are going to hesitate,” Klentak said. “As for the timing, I think honestly I think the markets will often dictate it.

“Sometimes there is a player or players out there that fit what you’re trying to do, that fit the timeline, fit your narrative. And if it’s there and it works, you pounce on it. There are going to be other times when it’s just not there. And I’m a big believer that you don’t force things if they’re not there.”

So don’t expect the equivalent of the out-of-nowhere, rebuilding Washington Nationals blowing away the free agent field to sign Jayson Werth a half dozen years ago.

“Even dating back to a year ago at this time,” Klentak continued, “we talked a lot about discipline and understanding who we are as an organization and where we are as an organization and making sure that we’re disciplined about how we achieve what we want to achieve.”

But this isn’t to say Klentak and Co. will simply sit on their hands this winter and put all of their hopes on J.P. Crawford, Roman Quinn, Nick Williams, and Dylan Cozens arriving at different points in the 2017 season in an effort to upgrade an offense that ranked last in baseball in several categories, including runs scored. The Phils brass can look beyond the free agent market – which opened at midnight Tuesday – to find the square peg that fits better into their square hole.

It could come in the form of a trade, acquiring a hitter from a team trying to shed salary this winter. That’s pretty much the tactic the team used last winter when they acquired Charlie Morton from Pittsburgh and Hellickson from Arizona (the latter shedding salary to make a spirited and successful run at Zack Greinke).

One example: say the dearth of attractive starting options on the free agent market leads the Chicago White Sox to shop Chris Sale for a ridiculous return (he has a very team-friendly contract). If Sale went, perhaps the Sox would listen in on Todd Frazier (a free agent after the 2017 season), too. Perhaps the Phils can deal from a position of strength (catching or pitching) to secure a young, legitimate power bat they can have for 2017, while attempting to extend that player’s contract, too.

We’re not saying that’s an actual scenario that could unfold. We're just using it as an example of looking beyond the obvious potential moves a team can make.

And the market is still developing as teams (like the Phillies) wait for their own free agents to accept or reject qualifying offers.

“It’s still early,” Klentak said when asked if he saw potential offensive upgrades available this winter on short-term deals. “The next couple of days I have a lot of meetings set up with agents and with other teams. We've gone through the other 29 rosters and looked at their contract statuses of their players. As you guys read, we look at teams. Who's rebuilding? Who's trying to shed payroll? Who's trying to add payroll? We look at all those things to try to identify where the right fits are.

“I think there will be opportunities. I am almost certain of it. Does it happen this week? Does it happen next week? Does it happen at the winter meetings? Or does it happen on the first day of February? Sometimes that's just the way it is.

“Some players are still sitting out there on the eve of spring training that we didn't expect to be out there. We could be in a position to sign somebody then. I'm pretty open-minded about the timing.”

Klentak can be methodical this winter. There isn’t any pressure on him to add to a roster that’s not expected to contend in 2017.

And his upcoming payroll commitments ($24.2 million before arbitration in 2017, and just $2 million before arbitration in 2018) allow him to look with a more curious eye toward the upcoming free agent classes when the Phillies are moving closer to contention.

Some potential free agents this time next year:  Frazier, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Carlos Gonzalez, Jonathan Lucroy, J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Danny Duffy.

Some potential free agents in the ridiculously rich class of the winter of 2018-19:  Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Andrew McCutchen, Dee Gordon, A.J. Pollock, Clayton Kershaw, Andrew Miller, Matt Harvey.

Just before the Phillies announced their intentions to undergo a rebuild a little more than two years ago, then-interim team president and Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick said the most important thing – and the hardest thing – was for everyone to stay patient throughout the process. You could say that’s Klentak’s unofficial and unannounced catchphrase for his second offseason as a big league GM, although he’ll be aggressive if he needs to be if the right situation presents itself this winter.

“The first thing, we want to make the 2017 Phillies better than the 2016 Phillies,” Klentak said when asked how he would term a successful offseason. “To me, I think it’s important that we continue to move the ball down the field and show progress.

“Simultaneously we need to be very cognizant of not blocking the development timeline of our players, some that are in the big leagues and some that are on the cusp of reaching the big leagues. For me, it’s important for us to make decisions that are going to help us improve, get better, develop and create a positive culture, and make sure we’re doing so in the right way.

“To use (Pat) Neshek as an example, we’d like to get better in the bullpen. That’s a goal of ours for next year. Pat Neshek has had a very good three-year run as a performer and he comes on a one-year deal. That’s the type of player that fits what we’re trying to do.”

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