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December 05, 2016

Klentak, Phillies continue making small moves as Winter Meetings commence

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – For the first half-dozen minutes of his Monday availability with the press, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak was asked about adding players, whether it was more bullpen inventory (which they are on the cusp of doing, again), or a backup catcher, or a veteran utility infielder, or even the usual supply of minor league free agents that come to spring training as non-roster invitees.

But what about the likelihood of subtracting from their current nucleus? Could Klentak pull off the equivalent of his first significant transaction as a major league general manager at the end of last year’s Winter Meetings, when he agreed to trade closer Ken Giles to the Houston Astros for five pitchers?

The Phillies have no shortage of young players they could quote-unquote sell high on, whether it’s rising right-handed reliever Hector Neris, second baseman Cesar Hernandez, catcher Cameron Rupp, and even center fielder Odubel Herrera. For a rebuilding team with prospects on the way, there could be an argument to be made for moving any of those four players in the right deal.

But Klentak sure didn’t sound like anyone ready to announce such a trade on the first day of baseball operations at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, MD.

“I would say there's nothing nearly as active on that front today as there was a year ago at this time with Giles,” Klentak said. “However, I'll say, and I view this as a good thing organizationally, there is genuine interest in a lot of our players, especially on the pitching side right now. Because we added as many players to the roster as we did, we have a lot of volume of starting pitching particularly at the big league, Triple-A and Double-A levels, and teams have noticed that and are asking us about that to see if there's a swap that might make sense for both parties. Those are the type of inquiries that we explore, particularly in a setting like this where everybody's together in one place and we just see what comes of it. I wouldn't say it's quite as focused or quite as targeted as it was a year ago.”

Of course, the climate of any trade (or free agent signing) can change with one phone call. But the only move imminent for the Phillies on Tuesday as the aforementioned signing of 39-year-old veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit, which could become official as soon as Tuesday (following a physical).

It is at least slightly curious that the Phillies have added (or retained) three veteran, potential backend relievers in the first month of the offseason. Benoit will join Pat Neshek (acquired in a trade last month) and Jeanmar Gomez (tendered a contract before the deadline for arbitration-eligible players on Friday).

Could those moves have been made to give the team depth should they move Neris in a trade? Possibly not, but the Phillies did sign veteran set-up man David Hernandez just before trading Giles a year ago.

In Neris’ case, it might make some sense to let him start the season as the Phillies closer and then let him further increase his value before possibly exploring a deal prior to the July trade deadline. But this is all pure speculation, a hallmark of any Winter Meetings.

On Monday, Klentak said the front office simply wanted to provide manager Pete Mackanin with a little more reliability from his relief corps in 2017.

“That’s something that Pete and I have talked about all offseason, just trying to make sure we’re as competitive as we can be,” Klentak said. “Not only in save situations, but trying to keep games close, even when we have a deficit. Anything that we can do to try to augment the bullpen we’re going to do.”

It was at least a little interesting that Klentak mentioned opposing teams’ interest in the Phillies young collection of starting pitching.

If the season were to open up today, and everyone was healthy, one of the trio of Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, and Alec Asher would fit into the major league starting rotation, and the trickle effect would leave the Phillies with a surplus of starters at Triple-A, too, where the likes of Adam Morgan, Ben Lively, Mark Appel, Nick Pivetta, and Phil Klein could be destined.

The Phils could certainly choose to trade from that depth – don’t forget those Vince Velasquez trade talks in July – to upgrade elsewhere.

“That would be the idea,” Klentak said, speaking in general and not about any one of his pitchers specifically. “If we are trading from an area of perceived depth or surplus, you try to find a fit in an area that we aren’t quite as deep. But all along – and you guys have heard me mention this before – the minute that you think you have enough starting pitching is the minute that the baseball gods will come get you. We have to be mindful of that as well.”

It’s still worth pointing out that through all of the Phillies activity in the last month, the majority of it has been in adding pitching and not addressing an offense that ranked last in baseball in runs (610), hitting (.240), extra-base hits (427), OPS (.685), and total bases (2,090) and second-to-last in OBP (.301), slugging percentage (.685), and walks (424). Klentak traded for veteran Howie Kendrick (coming off an off-year and set to start in left field), but what about jumping into a free agent market that’s been a little slow for some premiere sluggers (Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion) or a trade market with viable upgrades, too (Andrew McCutchen, J.D. Martinez)?

Klentak and the Phillies brass still seem to be of the mind of making sure that whatever bats they add that they’re not taking away an opportunity from young players and prospects they want to watch develop in the big leagues in 2017.

“That topic is the one that we have spent the most time discussion not just here, but this off-season, about striking the right balance between adding a veteran bat or veteran free agent to this team to make our team better,” Klentak said. “But again, not taking playing time away from players that need the playing time. That’s part of the question earlier ‘Could Andrew Knapp be the second catcher on this year’s team?’ That’s part of the dynamic that we have to consider there.

“The same is true in the outfield where we had hoped a year ago that Aaron Altherr would get a year of playing time to use the 2016 season to find out about Aaron Altherr and his wrist injury cost him most of the season. So we really didn’t have a chance to find out. Roman Quinn came up at the end of the year and, at times, looked like a legitimate major league contributor. But we also have to be mindful of the fact that he hasn’t logged a single at-bat at Triple-A yet.

“That doesn’t have an obvious answer. We are continuing to talk about trade acquisitions and talk to agents for free agents to see if the right opportunity exists to blend all those factors together but what we do not want to do is bring in so many veterans that we are denying opportunities to our young players.”

Some other interesting ex-Phillies related reports out of the Meetings:

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