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January 21, 2016

Klentak keeping eyes open for potential free-agent bargains

Major leagues camps in Florida and Arizona open in less than a month. So every team’s roster is tidied up and ready to go, right?

Not quite.

Yoenis Cespedes is still looking for a job. So are Ian Desmond and Howie Kendrick, two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, serviceable starter Doug Fister, useful reliever Tyler Clippard, power bats Pedro Alvarez and Justin Morneau, and a trio of former Phillies, Jimmy Rollins, Domonic Brown and Jeff Francoeur.

Don’t bet on a homecoming for the latter three – the Phillies outfield is suddenly crowded and there doesn’t appear to be any semi-regular at-bats for Francoeur, a veteran clubhouse favorite in 2015. But could the Phillies be in on anyone else?

“I would say no one in particular, but we’re assessing the market for opportunity, players who might become available late in the offseason,” Klentak said. “We want to make sure we’re involved and engaged with the agents. It doesn’t mean we will sign somebody, but we want to be aware of that’s going on.”

Is Matt Klentak trying to be the guy who swoops in on Christmas Eve, trying to get a last-mute bargain?

“It’s possible,” the first-year Phillies general manager said before attending the annual Lehigh Valley IronPigs Winter Banquet on Thursday night at the Sands Event Center in Bethlehem.

“We continue to survey the market … We’re on the phone, we’re talking to agents - and other clubs,” Klentak continued. “Sometimes they come in trades. We continue to be active. But it’s hard to handicap at this point who if anyone it would be, but if there’s an opportunity out there, we’re going to try to pursue it.”

As Klentak pointed out, nearly every year a big-name free agent or two ends staying on the market longer than anyone would have anticipated. And sometimes it works out just fine for those players. On Jan. 24, 2012, Prince Fielder signed a $214 million contract with Detroit. Last year, on Jan. 21, Max Scherzer signed a $210 million deal with Washington.

The Phils wouldn’t seem to be an attractive landing spot for Cespedes, the only free agent left could command a $100 million deal. (If he settles for a smaller, one- or two-year deal, it’d almost certainly come from a contender, like his previous team, the New York Mets.).

Klentak and the rebuilding Phillies weren’t in the market for an All-Star caliber player anyway. They could stand to benefit, however, from a potential buy-low candidate if they like the price and the potential moving forward.

“I would say no one in particular, but we’re assessing the market for opportunity, players who might become available late in the offseason,” Klentak said. “We want to make sure we’re involved and engaged with the agents. It doesn’t mean we will sign somebody, but we want to be aware of that’s going on.”

FAVORITE FOR THE FIFTH? Earlier this week, manager Pete Mackanin all but penciled in four pitchers to his Opening Day rotation: veterans Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton and second-year starters Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff. Among those competing for the fifth and final spot are Adam Morgan, Vincent Velasquez, Brett Oberholtzer, Alec Asher and even David Buchanan and Severino Gonzalez, although the latter two are surer bets for Triple-A Lehigh Valley following last season.

So who is the favorite for the fifth spot? Oberholtzer and Morgan would both stand to be the only lefty in the rotation if it's either of them, but it’s difficult to bet against Velazquez, who has the biggest arm among the aforementioned candidates.

Velasquez, who turns 24 in June, went 1-1 with a 4.37 ERA in 19 games (seven starts) with the Astros last season. In his seven starts, Velasquez, a 6-3 right-hander, had a 4.03 ERA and struck out 38 while walking 14 in 38 innings.

“Velasquez is really a top notch prospect,” Mackanin said. “Everybody I’ve talked to at the Winter Meetings, they said ‘You’ve got a good one there, this guy is the real deal.” So I’m anxious to see him.”

One thing that won’t happen, at least if you listened to Klentak on Thursday night in Bethlehem: Velasquez, who some believe has an arm that could lend itself to becoming a closer, won’t work out of the bullpen as he did for the majority of his 2015 stay with the Astros.

“In a perfect world, from a value perspective, I hope he’s in the starting rotation in the big leagues,” Klentak said. “He will dictate that. Pete and (pitching coach Bob McClure) and our staff will ultimately assess these guys and put together the best five out there that we can, but certainly from a value standpoint, we’d hope he’d be a starter. But look, when we bring in new players like we have, we need to assess them, bring them in, get to know them, get to see them pitch and watch their work ethics like, etcetera etcetera, before we make those decisions.”

Both Velasquez and Oberholtzer (11-20 with a 3.84 ERA in 42 starts in the last three years) came over from the Astros in the Ken Giles trade last month.

PHILL-INS: The deepest part of the Phillies roster is arguably the place that’s been the shallowest for the last four years: centerfield. Odubel Herrera, Peter Bourjos and Rule 5 pick Tyler Goeddel are all viewed as natural options in centerfield. Bourjos’ glove is respected enough that Mackanin has already talked about potentially sliding Herrera to left field. “It’ll be decided in spring training but it’s something I’m looking forward, watching three center fielders run around the outfield,” Klentak said. “I think our pitchers are excited to watch that, too. … I love the fact that our OF can really go get the baseball. If it’s hit in the air this year, we should have a very good chance to track it down.” … With less than a month until the Phillies open camp in Clearwater, Klentak said the only two players who aren’t expected to be healthy at the outset are pitchers Mario Hollands and Matt Harrison. Hollands had Tommy John surgery in April and Harrison has made just nine starts in the last three seasons due to chronic back injuries. … Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz celebrates his 37th birthday on Friday. He is one of just two players on the 40-man roster born in the 1970s. There are 21 players in the game roster born in the 1990s, the youngest being catching prospect Jorge Alfaro, who turns 23 in June.