February 13, 2020
In the past, like at the conclusion of the Phillies' disappointing 2019 campaign, general manager Matt Klentak was asked whether or not he's worried about his current job status, given that his team has yet to finish with an above-.500 record since he's arrived despite spending quite a bit in free agency in recent years.
At the time, Klentak said that's simply the reality of life as an MLB general manager: "Not really. On the day you take this job, you know you’re someday going to lose it. I’ve heard a lot of people say that. That’s probably a given."
Well, he's not wrong, although it certainly helps his state of mind that the team inked him to a three-year contract extension last spring that will run through the 2022 season. Still, the 2020 Phillies season could be a do-or-die season for the general manager, who saw his team improve by just one win last season despite one of the biggest offseasons in baseball history and was seemingly overruled in the decision to part ways with Gabe Kapler.
And to be fair, if you simply look at the Phillies' recent offseason moves, it doesn't seem like Klentak is running the organization like a guy who is worried anything short of a deep playoff run will mean the end of his tenure. The Phillies two big moves were acquiring Zack Wheeler and Didi Gregorius — and, off the field, adding Joe Girardi as the manager — but there were plenty of other, bigger options out there. And there still might be, as guys like the Cubs' Kris Bryant and the Rockies' Nolan Arenado are reportedly on the trade block despite most teams already already having reported to spring training.
On Thursday, Klentak spoke to the media in Clearwater and was asked about the Phillies interest in potential adding another big-name player before they return north for the start of the season. There was a report recently suggesting the Phillies were out on Bryant because the teams didn't view themselves as a match, but according to Klentak, the Phillies are always looking.
"You've heard me say some version of this before, a lot of you have, we have a responsibility to the organization, to our ownership, to our fans to explore trades when we can add meaningful talent to our organization," Klentak said. "Some of the guys I think you're referring to would certainly qualify as that. So, you can be sure that when a player from another club is perceived to be available, that the Phillies have checked in on that player, in some cases have exchanged offers with that team — both made offers, received counter-offers, etc. — and that we've looked into it.
"Again, I'm not going to say that's specifically about one player or another, but our responsibility is to explore that. We try to keep the specifics of that under wraps — I think we typically do a pretty good job of that — but you can be sure that when good players are available the Phillies are checking in and exploring that possibility."
Of course, that was the setup for the eventual dose of reality Klentak would deliver when asked a follow-up about the likelihood of anything materializing before Opening Day.
"At this stage, I think trades in general once you get into spring training are less common," Klentak said. "That's more broadly speaking than specific to the Phillies, but I mean, look, a year ago this time we were sitting here at this very table talking about introducing J.T. Realmuto and then it was another few weeks before we signed [Bryce] Harper. So it's not impossible, but right now I'm comfortable with the group we have and expect that this group of 71, which is a rather large camp to begin with, will be our group."
Aside from the hurdles that come with making a deal like this work, adding the likes of a Bryant or Arenado would push the Phillies over the Competitive Balance Tax, something they've been trying to avoid but are also willing to do if it's for the right piece. Still, with the number of lesser moves the Phillies have made (following their two splashy signings in Wheeler and Gregorius) suggest that the Phillies have been hesitant to cross that number.
Klentak was asked whether or not that was a barrier to the team during free agency, and the Phillies GM said that while it was something they were certainly aware of, ownership remains open to crossing that threshold should a deal materialize. According to Klentak, however, they've never gotten close enough to a deal that would push them over so they've never actually had to have that conversation.
"I think that's the way our ownership continues to think," he said when asked about ownership's willingness to exceed the tax. "It's not — you used the word barrier, and I don't think it's a barrier. It's a guide, but by no means is it a hard cap. Our ownership has always encouraged us to pursue every opportunity and, if it makes sense from a baseball perspective, to bring it to them. There have been a couple of instances the last few years where we have done that and brought it to them and we've decided to exceed whatever our internal budget was to make that move. So I certainly believe them when they say that; they've got a track record of following through on that.
"Kind of circling back to [MLB.com's Todd Zolecki's] question [about the currently available players] a little bit, some of the names that he's asking about would certainly put us over [the tax]. We never got to the point of really asking ownership for that, because we've never lined up on a baseball trade that we thought was right, but I think if we ever got to that point, whether it's before the season, at the trade deadline, in 2021, I would expect to have a good productive dialogue with our owners about that. I don't necessarily see it as a hard barrier, to use your word."
It appears Klentak is still unfazed by the potential heat building under his seat. If he was running things like he was scared for his job, you'd have to imagine he'd be banging down ownership's door to make a deal for someone like Bryant, regardless of the cost. That's just what desperate GMs do.
Still there is a belief among baseball executives that the Phillies front office will be operating on a tight leash this season.
As part of his annual spring training preview for The Athletic, Jayson Stark asked 30 baseball executives which front office is feeling the most pressure to have a big season in 2020 — and the Phillies finished second, two votes behind the San Diego Padres.
Phillies front office (13 votes): Our voters were big fans of the hiring of Joe Girardi as the new manager in Philly. But they also were paying attention last fall, when the GM (Matt Klentak) and team president (Andy MacPhail) made it clear they wanted to keep the old manager (Gabe Kapler) — only to be overruled by team president John Middleton. So it’s no wonder that we’re now seeing more than a dozen rival execs casting doubt on how much faith Middleton has in his front office if another season takes a wrong turn. [theathletic.com]
The problem for Klentak and the Phillies is that simply getting out of their division is going to be a tall task. The annual Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections came out this week, and they had the Phillies finishing in fourth place in the NL East once again — and actually had them winning several fewer games than a year ago. Klentak has seen those projections, but didn't want to comment on them because he hasn't been able to dig into the numbers behind the numbers (in other words, why PECOTA has the Phillies finishing with just 77 wins).
But that doesn't mean Klentak doesn't see a path for the Phillies to win the division in 2020. It's just going to take all the right things falling into place to get them there.
"When we did the introductory press conference for Didi [Gregorius] and [Zack] Wheeler back in December, I said something like this, but I think it's important," the GM stated. "We won 81 games a year ago, which was a one win improvement on what we'd done the prior year. And we had a lot of things go wrong for us, many of which you've asked about here and we've talked about for much of the winter. When you take that baseline and add on Zack Wheeler and add Didi Gregorius and Joe Girardi and add Brian Price and add Joe Dillon and add a lot of the pitching and bench depth that we've added for spring training, and I think it is very reasonable to project that this year's club will be better than last year's club.
"Now, are we going to need better health? Yeah, we're going to need better health. Are we going to need some young players to step forward? Yes. Are we going to need some veteran players to sustain their performance? Of course we are. Teams that win divisions, teams that win championships, have a lot of things go right for them. They have a guy come and break out; they have a veteran have a career year; they stay healthy; things like that happen. But I think we are lining up that if we get some of those contributions I just mentioned, that we will very much be in the mix with the other three teams in our division who are also very talented and projected to win a lot of games this year. How we fare against those teams, head-to-head, is going to have a direct bearing on how we finish the season, because a win for us and loss for the other side is a big swing in a single game.
"The National League in general is very good, not just the East but the National League in general. There are not a lot of easy wins, and as we learned last year, what looks on paper like easy wins are not always easy wins. So we're going to have to bring it every day. And I know that is part of Joe [Girardi]'s message to the players, is that Opening Day, May 1, June 1, July 1, the last game of the season, they all count.
"And you don't know when that one game is going to be the difference between you making it and not making it."
Sure, one game can be the difference between making it and not making it. But so can one player, especially if their an All-Star caliber position player that can hit in the heart of your order. But Phillies fans hoping the deal deals for Bryant or Arenado shouldn't hold their breath. Despite Klentak being open to improving his team this late in the winter, he seems pretty confident with group he currently has.
"As I sit here today, I'm pretty comfortable with the group we have. That could change in a hot second, as you know, if there's an injury or something else. For right now, I think we've created the frontline, the starting group that we feel comfortable about and we've supported that with a lot of numbers. As I've mentioned earlier, we've got the biggest camp since I've been here — probably the biggest camp out of anywhere I've worked — and that's by design. We want to have a lot of young players from our system get the first taste of the big leagues, some exposure to this manager, coaching staff and players, so that when they come up during the season, it's not the first time they're exposed to that.
"We were an attractive destination for some of these [non-roster invitees] I've mentioned, both position players and the bullpen guys, because they see an opportunity to make a team that's going to be a good team. So that's why we added some of those guys. I think we've built some depth, I think we've built the frontline, I think we have, and we talked about this at one point, the importance of working our young players into regular roles. We have to do that in order to sustain success over the long haul. And I think we're doing that with [Adam] Haseley, [Roman] Quinn, [Scott] Kingery, and hopefully at some point [Alec] Bohm and [Spencer] Howard. We're creating lanes for these guys to come up. So, right now, I feel good about what we have, but that can certainly change."
If the Phillies are going to change anything, they better do so soon. Their first spring training game is a week from Saturday.
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