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October 03, 2017

Team president Andy MacPhail: Phillies won't be chasing 'unicorns' this winter

The most interesting seconds of Andy MacPhail’s expansive state-of-the-franchise address on Tuesday afternoon probably came when the long-time baseball executive chose to speak in specifics.

Like acknowledging that their vastly improved data department is working on catchers’ framing from the ground up, throughout the organization, since it’s been “well below average.”

“There are certain technologies that will help you instruct, teach, measure how well someone does that,” the Phillies team president said. “We need to acquire those technologies to ensure that’s an area that gets improved. We think that’s an area that needs improvement, significantly.”

The least interesting minutes of MacPhail’s address came during the first half of the nearly 38-minute media availability, when rather than answer a couple of questions he basically read off a carefully-constructed dossier with stats everyone already knew and bullet points he wanted to make sure everyone knew before the morning conference was complete.

When asked, for example, if the Phillies’ improved play with the arrival of prospects in the season’s last three months, and the general lack of interest from Philadelphia sports fans in general (the Phillies drew fewer than 20,000 fans in 12 of their 30 home dates since Rhys Hoskins’ arrival, and, overall, only six teams drew fewer fans-per-game in 2017) would lead to the front office being more aggressive this winter in upgrading the roster by way of multi-year contracts (read: no more Charlie Mortons and Michael Saunderses), MacPhail broke out into an 11-minute “answer” that might have been better executed with a projector and slides of a PowerPoint presentation.

“I would hope and expect, that as the team gets competitive that that is going to change,” MacPhail said of an attendance that’s been in the bottom fourth of baseball for three straight years. “We’re going to get closer to prior levels. But that’s our job, to make sure that put a product on the field that is worthy of them making an investment of their money. … As a team president, there are four different things that are always sort of competing for your resource.”

Those four things?

“The first thing, the biggest is your player payroll,” he said. “That can take the lion’s share of your revenue and this franchise has been no stranger to having a top-five payroll. I don’t anticipate that we’re going to be there next year. It’s not because there isn’t a will to do it, it’s just the composition of our roster is very young. They haven’t reached their earning potential yet.”

And what else?

“The second thing that sort of tugs at your resources are just like the security and the maintenance of your ballpark,” MacPhail said. “We are the oldest park in the National League East. … The third is upgrades to the fan experience at Citizens Bank Park. Those are essential. … while our payroll is not at an accustomed level that we’ve had in the past, then this is the time to make investments in the ballpark and in the fan experience and we hope to be, we’re certainly going to do some of that for ’18 and some of it in ’19. …. The fourth thing which I think is critical and important for us, is that we have to invest in different initiatives. … A long and about way of answering is that we are tasked with the mandate of improving. That’s what we are doing and there are a variety of ways to improve it. It is not just a function of how much money you spend on the payroll and what free agent you did or didn’t sign.”

Those aforementioned initiatives (his fourth point), by the way, included bolstering the analytics staff, diving into sports science, adding to the scouting staff, and so on. In summary, the upkeep and presentation of the 14-year-old ballpark account for two of four items “competing for (the Phillies) resources” following the team’s sixth straight season without a winning record.

It’s probably senseless to argue any of these points since it was crystal clear that MacPhail, who made sure to point out the president oversees both the baseball and the business side of the operation, had already done copious homework on the organization’s budget. But the two dozen or so media members in the press conference room, acting as a collective conduit for the fans/paying customers, probably didn’t show up on Tuesday morning to ask about upgrades for a ballpark that opened waaaay back in 2004, but to ask about improvements for a roster that’s been in rebuild mode for three years.

So, let’s try to sneak in a question specifically about that. Again.

Phillies starting pitchers allowed 150 home runs this season, sixth-most in baseball. Everyone besides Aaron Nola in that rotation – 10 starters that accounted for 135 of the team’s 162 games – combined for a 5.10 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 2017.

MacPhail, like his predecessor Pat Gillick, has made it known he’s not a huge fan of long-term contracts for free agent pitchers, which would be the most obvious and painless way for the Phillies to upgrade their greatest need this winter. Does he still have a general distaste for such deals?

“My philosophy hasn't changed,” MacPhail said. “There are times when you're going to have to dive into that pool and just take a risk. But it's not my favorite place to be. We get inundated with stories across the game about how everybody is looking for starting pitching. Just get two quality starters, and we'll be all set. Well, you might as well look for a unicorn at the same time. It's tough. You don't want to be paying for past performance.”

So don't set your expectations on the Phillies making a play for soon-to-be free agents Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish.

Don’t go chasing unicorns, please stick to the Jeremy Hellicksons that you’re used to. Well, not quite.

The Phillies could address their need for pitching by dipping into their prospect talent pool, or their excess of major league and major league-ready infielders, or by combining the two. Just as there isn’t one way to spread out your budget as team president, there isn’t one avenue to upgrade your major league roster as general manager.

“This is as deep an organization that I’ve ever been associated with,” MacPhail said. “We don’t have some of the marquee names that other teams have, but in terms of depth, I think we’re as good as there is in the game. The simple truth of the matter is while we might have 30 guys that we really think have a chance to get there, we might get six or seven out of that group. We’re not smart enough to know what 22 or 23 aren’t going to make it and what seven or eight are. We really aren’t.

“But we try to everything we can to push the odds into our favor and make a good decision. … If the question is, ‘Is it is possible that Matt uses those assets in the minor-leagues to augment our major league club in ’18?’ then I think the answer to that question is definitely, we’d consider it. The minor leagues are there to populate your major league club and it can happen a couple different ways. They can come up and play or you can turn them in for what is more known assets.”

In the end, MacPhail probably went a long way to make that point that the state of the franchise is healthy and that, like Gillick said repeatedly when the rebuild was about to begin 37 months ago, patience is still required.

The young Phillies were promising, but they’re still largely unproven. The free agent class of 2018-19 is considerably better than the one that collectively hits the open market next month.

This is something both fans and the Phillies ownership group must remember this offseason, despite the promising final two months of the 2017 regular season.

“We've already talked to ownership about it and explained to them why,” MacPhail said 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. Ultimately, they're OK with it with one proviso: that if an opportunity presents itself, we do not exclude it. They understand the program.”

Including winning-obsessed general partner John Middleton?

“He often sits right next to me so I get it up-close and personal,” MacPhail said. “John is intense and he wants to win. He's also smart and realistic. He's been around the game long enough to know, and it's part of our job to make him understand where we are in comparison to other clubs and what is attainable now and what is attainable in the future.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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