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November 06, 2017

MLB Free Agency: 'Disciplined' Phillies will stick to long-term plan

The Phillies have a new manager. In the coming weeks, Gabe Kapler will put together his coaching staff.

But what about the roster?

As the Phillies’ offseason enters its second month, and free agency officially gets underway today, the focus will turn away from the people running the team and onto, well, the team.

Four members of the 2017 Phillies final roster are free agents: Andres Blanco, Clay Buchholz, Hyun-Soo Kim, and Daniel Nava. None are terrific fits for the 2018 Phillies.

Nor are they the kind of needle-moving additions that would put the Phillies on the radar of a Philadelphia sports scene that’s gone gaga over their football and basketball neighbors in recent months.

The idea that the Phillies could go the other route and make some headline-grabbing signings this winter was mostly squashed away by team president Andy MacPhail a month ago. 

Remember the Phillies won’t be chasing unicorns this winter – they have to upgrade the beaten-down, 14-year-old building they call home instead.

The same Phillies, we should note, who:

     • haven’t had a winning record since 2011

     • have ranked in the bottom seven in baseball in total attendance in each of the last three seasons

     • saw their local TV ratings drop again in 2017

So it was easy to wonder when MacPhail made his comments a month ago what his bosses in the Phillies ownership box might have to say about it.

“We've already talked to ownership about it and explained to them why,” MacPhail said on Oct. 3 of the likelihood that the team's payroll would not significantly increase before Opening Day of 2018. “They did not react extraordinarily well in the beginning.”

Almost exactly a month later – when the Phillies introduced Kapler as their manager last Thursday, Nov. 2 – ownership seemed to be on board with the baseball operations department’s carefully calculated long-term plan. No, they will most likely not be bringing Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish though that door this winter in order to improve a rotation of Aaron Nola and The Unknowns, but, yes, they see the big picture and will at least attempt to remain patient and true to the rebuild.

“I think it’s all about the timing,” managing partner John Middleton said last week. “If you go back and look at ’04, ’05, ’06, you had different players coming up at different points in time. Pat (Burrell) came up and Jimmy (Rollins) came up, and Chase (Utley) came up, and Ryan Madson came up, and Ryan Madson came up. So the way this industry is structured … you have set salaries early on, and then they grow, and there’s arbitration and then free agency. So you have the right base to add to it.

“Part of what we saw, going back to that team and that era, as players came to the major leagues and performed, you got to sit back and evaluate how good they were, and whether or not they were going to be good enough. And you can stay with them, pay their arbitration and free agency dollars. Or that they aren’t going to cut it … and we have to trade for someone who could take their place.

“We’re doing that. The real value I think of this season was being able to take a look at these players and say whether we could project them or not. We’ve been doing that, even into ’16. But particularly this year with all of the players that have been coming up.”

In summary: the Phillies homegrown core isn’t quite ready for a big pitcher (or three) here or a star hitter there to morph into a contender.

Plus, it’s not the best free agent class this winter anyway (unless you’re bullish on Arrieta or are OK with J.D. Martinez as the best bat available to the highest bidder). The timing could be just right next year when the aforementioned players already here will take another step (or not) toward being worthy pieces of the core of the next winning team and one of the best free agent classes in recent history will hit the open market.

I’m a competitive person. I think one of the things people don’t talk about enough is the emotional impact of losing on competitive people. I hate it. I’m embarrassed by it.

The Phillies have basically modeled their rebuild after similar ones each of the last two World Series winners, the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, underwent in the last decade (something we examined this summer, along with the progress the Phillies had [or hadn’t] made). Which leads to an interesting comment Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow made after his team accomplished their ultimate goal last week:

"We could've easily signed a couple of free agents in 2012, 2013 to appease the media, the fans, and maybe we would've gotten a few extra fans, but it wouldn't have changed the answer. We weren't going to be a division-winning team at that point,” Luhnow, who took over in Dec. 2011 while the Astros were in the midst of three consecutive seasons with at least 100 losses, said in the Houston Chronicle. “So we did what we could. We made trades. We got (Chris) Devenski. We got (Joe) Musgrove. We got the guys that we needed to get, and it paid off at the end of the day.”

So perhaps the Phillies will, yet again, make more minor moves this winter. Or, to put it in a better way, moves they see as not necessarily splashy but may be advantageous, buying low on a young arm with a higher ceiling who may need a change of scenery.

Middleton absolutely despises losing – it gnaws at him nightly during the summer – and he probably doesn’t like a half-empty ballpark and low TV ratings, either. But he seems to be on board with the slow build that’s being conducted by the very smart baseball people he’s hired in the last three years.

“It’s hard. I’m a competitive person,” Middleton said. “I think one of the things people don’t talk about enough is the emotional impact of losing on competitive people. I hate it. I’m embarrassed by it. I don’t like looking bad in anything I do. So it’s hard, it’s hard when you’re team is out there. … It’s hard not to react to that.

“One of the things that’s interesting is, I go to the owners' meetings and people who have been through this like (Houston owner) Jim Crane would say, ‘Stay the course.’ He said, ‘However bad you think it is, we had three seasons losing like 108 games a year. John, you’re not that bad.’ So it’s really hard, but that’s also part of the discipline, knowing you can suck it up and tough it out.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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