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Philadelphia Phillies

How do the Phillies get back to contending?

Philadelphia Phillies president Andy MacPhail, left, talks to manager Pete Mackanin before a spring training baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays Saturday, March 12, 2016, in Clearwater, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

The Philadelphia Phillies were not expected to contend in 2017 but their record, by far the worst in baseball, is like that of a team that has tacitly chosen to tank the season. The initial stages of the rebuild has not gone according to plan not just because they have such a poor record, but because the veterans they imported have been injured or struggled and several young players they’re counting on have worrisomely regressed. Let’s look at what they must do to get the ship pointed in the right direction.

  • Accept their mistake and don’t repeat it.

They’ve “achieved” that terrible record with a payroll of around $100 million. While importing some recognizable names was an understandable gesture to the Phillies fans who had flocked to the ballpark when the club was dominating the National League East, won two pennants and a World Series, they might have been better served to accept reality and not even bother.

Unlike many teams embarking on a full-scale rebuild, the Phillies chose not to take that to its logical and – in the eyes of many – wisest step, which is to lose as relentlessly as possible and get higher draft picks. No one involved with the Phillies was functioning under a delusion that they were contenders, but they did strive to be a respectable type of bad with veterans Howie Kendrick, Jeremy Hellickson, Clay Buchholz, Pat Neshek, Michael Saunders, Andres Blanco and Joaquin Benoit.

There’s an argument to both sides – to tank or not to tank – but given the Phillies’ situation, a more coldblooded assessment of their circumstances could have set them up better for the future.

They have two choices for 2018: Tank or sign some good players who will be with them if they go on a financial barrage after 2018. They’ll be well situated with high draft picks and a low payroll to go on a spending spree with the flush free agent market (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Daniel Murphy, Andrew McCutchen, Josh Donaldson, Jeurys Familia, Adam Jones, Dallas Keuchel, possibly Clayton Kershaw) after 2018.

The players they acquired for 2017 were not in their primes and to a man knew that Philadelphia was a stopover with mutual benefits. For 2018, it’s either tank or sign legitimate improvements like Eric Hosmer and Jake Arrieta to provide guidance to the young players. The latter would serve as evidence that the club is serious in trying to win when they’re courting members of the free agent class after 2018.

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 17: Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta (49) looks on after hitting Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman David Freese (23) in the fifth inning during an MLB game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs on June 17, 2017 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire)

  • Get the front office and the field staff on the same page.

There are continuous reports of a disconnect between the front office and the field staff.

Had Andy MacPhail functioned as the main voice in baseball operations, then the sensibilities of MacPhail and veteran manager Pete Mackanin, Larry Bowa and the rest of the uniform staff would not be vastly different. However, the Phillies hired Matt Klentak as the GM.

Klentak is a sabermetrics aficionado and has bore the brunt of the Phillies’ disappointing season not because it’s clearly his fault, but because of the gap not just between his philosophies and that of his manager, but that MacPhail himself is an old-school baseball man. MacPhail, the team president, has adjusted to the “new” way of doing things only out of necessity and he, as the daily baseball boss, would likely not grasp all the new concepts in time to implement them. And his slow-and-steady way of running things, which was successful with the Minnesota Twins and laid the foundation for the Chicago Cubs of the mid-2000s and the Baltimore Orioles’ recent contenders, would not be granted the patience to see it through.

MacPhail’s style with the Twins was deliberate and patient. Two decades ago, there was a willingness on the part of organizations to adhere to a course of action even if it didn’t go ideally and yield a contender within a certain time frame, usually three to five years. Today, there will not be seven or eight years for it to work. Not for MacPhail, Klentak or anyone. Klentak is being treated as the human shield and is functioning as such, taking the hits for what is presumably only partly his fault.

With the Twins, MacPhail took over a team that was mediocre at best and had been poorly and cheaply run by former owner Calvin Griffith, who also functioned as the general manager. The Twins won a World Series in MacPhail’s third year, but it was largely a fluke – a byproduct of a ridiculous home record and mediocrity in the American League West.

The second championship in 1991 was a testimony to a strong foundation (Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek) slow and deliberate building (Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Erickson), opportunistic free agent signings (Jack Morris, Chili Davis), and gutsy trades (the 1989 deal that sent Frank Viola to the New York Mets for a package led by Rick Aguilera, Keven Tapani and David West – all of whom were keys to the championship).

With the Cubs, he drafted Mark Prior, Ryan Theriot, Geovany Soto and Rich Hill. With the Orioles, he traded away their one star, Erik Bedard, and got back Adam Jones and Chris Tillman, two key components of the Orioles’ return to prominence long after his departure.

He can rebuild a team if given the chance and is not wasting time keeping the GM and the field staff from passive aggressively fighting through the media in a culture war.

Frustration is inevitable with a team that is going to lose 100 games, but expressing it publicly does more harm than good.

25 September 2015: Philadelphia Phillies manager Pete Mackanin (45) in action against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

  • Determine which youngsters are legitimate keepers and discard the rest.

This basic concept was discussed here.

The Phillies didn’t expect to be this bad. Obviously, no rebuild goes upward unabated, but the Phillies’ veterans getting hurt or struggling is secondary to the regression of projected foundational pieces Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera.

Dealing Franco at this moment, as they have been rumored to be trying to do, makes little sense. His value is nonexistent and either giving him another chance in 2018 or trading him for a similarly downgraded youngster are their only two viable alternatives.

The young pitchers have shown enough that they deserve the chance to move forward and be part of the solution rather than be judged as part of the problem.

  • Clean house of the veterans and settle the issues between Klentak and the field staff.

Klentak is the featured performer in both situations. There is zero reason to keep the above-listed veterans and all should be moved for sawhatever they can get. Buchholz is lost for the season after surgery; Saunders was already dispatched. The Phillies are not in an enviable situation by cleaning house as none of these players will be given a qualifying offer at season’s end, so it’s move them or get nothing. In looking at all of them, the one who will bring back the best return is Neshek, but they can get something useful for Hellickson, Kendrick and Benoit.

That’s the short-term strategy and it’s obvious. The bigger issue here circles to the front office and the field staff. If they cannot come to a consensus on how the team should be run, then a change must be made and it won’t be Klentak who goes. For Mackanin, it’s either adapt or get eliminated and it’s up to him as to whether he wants to manage in today’s game or cling to yesteryear and be unemployed.

The Phillies look like a mess right now mostly because they are a mess. But that’s irrelevant in the grand scheme. They were going to be bad regardless. They can learn from what went wrong, take steps to fix it, move forward at the upcoming trade deadline and go from there.

*****

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