Matt Klentak

Matt Klentak's confidence in Gabe Kapler is unshaken

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Matt Klentak's confidence in Gabe Kapler is unshaken

NEW YORK — Matt Klentak believed in Gabe Kapler when he hired him as Phillies manager in the fall. He believed in him during the quiet winter months and throughout the "Be Bold" days of spring training.

A few bad days in Atlanta at the start of the season isn’t about to change Klentak’s confidence in the most significant hire of his tenure as Phillies general manager.

“When you hire a rookie manager, when you hire any manager, but especially a rookie manager, we know there is going to be a learning curve,” Klentak said Tuesday. “We also know that the first few games of the season are going to be the most heavily scrutinized games of the season because there is nothing else to look at. If you had a tough three-game stretch in the middle of July but you've got three or four months’ worth of games to back it up, any particular move or decision is not quite as alarming.

“We unfortunately have the combination of a rookie manager and a tough first three games, then an off day, then a rainout, with nothing else to talk about. And that's why we are where we are. But I think Kap is going to be absolutely fine with managing the bullpen.”

Kapler’s handling of the bullpen came into question when he quick-hooked Aaron Nola with a 5-0 lead on opening day. That turned into a 8-5 loss. Two days later, Kapler waved a cold reliever into the game after a miscommunication between the dugout and the bullpen.

Klentak addressed both situations.

“I don’t think it really does any good trying to explain it away,” he said of the communication breakdown during Saturday night’s 15-2 loss. “It happened. The thing that I’m pleased about is that Kap took responsibility for it right after the game. It sucked, but we’ve got to move on.”

Klentak defended his manager’s decision to lift Nola in the sixth inning at 68 pitches on opening day.

“We decided to start the season with four starters and a ninth bullpen piece,” Klentak said. “What that allowed us, we thought, in the first three games was the ability to match up and protect our starters and line them up to pitch on regular rest the next time through. From that perspective, the way Kap managed the game was the way we had drawn it up. It didn’t work, and that’s obvious. We now are sort of dealing with the fallout from that.

“I understood what he was doing and why he was doing it. We know that style of bullpen management is not going to continue for 162 games. It can’t. We can’t carry a ninth bullpen piece all year. The starters, naturally, will become more stretched out. The bullpen will settle into some roles. We never had any desire to do that all year long. That was that way we thought was the best game plan for the Atlanta series, and it didn’t work.”

On Tuesday, Kapler said the Atlanta series was a learning experience (see story). Klentak is only looking forward.

“Three games does not make a season,” he said. “Three games, as challenging as they may have been, are not going to undo all of the positives that have occurred over the last six months, both on and off the field.

"In spring training, we saw a lot of those positives, players and energy level and environment and many other things. And there is nothing that is going to happen in three games that is going to change that. And I think we're fortunate to have leadership in the organization above my pay grade that fully recognizes that as well.”

How Scott Kingery's deal got done

How Scott Kingery's deal got done

CLEARWATER, Fla. — It all came together in Matt Klentak's mind about 10 days ago. Scott Kingery had been the Phillies' best player in the minor leagues last year. He was their best player in spring training this year. He was ready for the majors. There was no way the Phils could not take him north for opening day.

But there was still that issue of controlling his rights for as long as possible. If the Phils were to put Kingery on their opening day roster, he could become a free agent after the 2023 season. If they waited 2½ weeks to bring him up, they could push back his free agency a full year, no small consideration because Kingery projects to be a major difference maker and there would be great value in having him around for an extra year of his prime.

As he watched Kingery play like a dynamo in spring training games, Klentak, the Phillies' general manager, came up with an idea that would allow him to bring Kingery north for opening day. He phoned one of Kingery’s representatives, David Matranga, and said, “Hey, I just want to see if there is any sort of appetite to discuss a situation like this.”

Move forward to Monday morning and there was Kingery, his mom, dad and twin brother in from Phoenix, sitting in a news conference to announce his new six-year, $24 million contract with the Phillies. It is the most money ever guaranteed a player who had entered pro ball through the draft and had not yet appeared in the majors. Kingery will make his major-league debut Thursday in Atlanta and manager Gabe Kapler promised to use him often, “all over the diamond.”

"He's not going to sit," Klentak said.

The Phillies hold three option years on the contract so Kingery could make $65 million over nine seasons. He turns 24 next month. So the Phillies could get his prime years — age 24 through 32 — for $65 million. If Kingery becomes the player most think he will, it will be a great deal for the Phillies. The flipside is that Kingery could outperform the contract. It might turn out someday that he left money on the table.

Kingery knew all the angles. He was happy to sign the deal.

“I took it to Scott and asked him if it was something he wanted to explore,” said Matranga, recalling Klentak’s first phone call. “He was obviously shocked and didn’t expect it, but he said, ‘Hey, what’s it going to hurt to explore it and see where it’s at and if it makes sense, we can move forward and if it doesn’t we’ll continue doing what we’re doing.’

“It was very quick. I always knew Scott was a very special player. I always felt like he was going to force the Phillies’ hand to make a tough decision about whether they wanted to take him north or not and obviously there is the business aspect that we all know. If I’m in the Phillies’ position, that is obviously a difficult decision when you can control the years of a young prospect. I knew they were going to have a tough decision, but I can’t say I saw them coming and doing this. But when they came to us you could tell they really want this kid to come north right away.”

Klentak was asked if Kingery would have made the opening day roster if the deal hadn’t gotten to the finish line.

“Fortunately, we never had to make that decision,” Klentak said. “I think everyone was comfortable with this agreement independent of what the opening day status was going to be.”

Kingery was certainly comfortable with the deal. Once upon a time, he wrote letters to college coaches trying to gain their interest. He walked on at the University of Arizona and became a Pac-12 Player of the Year and batting champ. Now, he’s a major leaguer with financial security. There’s much to be said for that — even if it turns out he left money on the table.

“You look around our clubhouse and you see the group of guys that we have right now,” he said. “There’s just so much talent. And the people that we brought in — it’s just an exciting time for us right now. I really think there’s something special going on. For me to be a part of that, and help bring this team up to Philly and show them what we can do, I think that’s just amazing. I think there’s really something special that we have here.”

Kingery is part of a young nucleus that includes two players — Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins — who have already accomplished a thing or two in the major leagues. It is reasonable to wonder if the Phillies are thinking about locking up them, or others, with long-term contracts.

“The notion of developing players internally and then bringing them to the big leagues and extending them is one that we hope to continue,” Klentak said. “Obviously, there is a lot that goes into that as far as the players and their performance, but also the timing and different financial ramifications, etc. But we are always open-minded to making decisions and signings that make sense for the organization and there is nothing we like more than rewarding our homegrown players.”

OK, is anything brewing at the moment?

“I will never comment on that,” Klentak said.

He would comment on Kingery, who is expected to wear uniform No. 4.

“Phillies fans are going to love this guy,” Klentak said. “I think they already do and he hasn’t even played a day in the big leagues. His style of play, his talent, his hustle, the way he goes about his business every day is going to be a perfect fit for the city of Philadelphia and our fans and our team. We are absolutely thrilled to not only sign this contract but to welcome him to our opening day roster.”

Manny Machado? Bryce Harper? Who gets the next ride on Air Middleton?

Manny Machado? Bryce Harper? Who gets the next ride on Air Middleton?

CLEARWATER, Fla. — By now, you’ve seen the video.

And if Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson and others have seen it, too … well, the Phillies are happy for the little bit of attention.

The Phils are back in the free-agent game. They announced their presence not only by signing Jake Arrieta to a three-year, $75 million contract on Monday, but also with how they transported and welcomed the pitcher to spring training.

Arrieta had a physical in Philadelphia on Monday. Upon completion, he was driven to Philadelphia International Airport, where owner John Middleton’s private jet — adorned with the Phillies’ red P on the tail — awaited. Arrieta and one of his representatives then flew to Florida's East Coast, picked up Middleton and his wife, Leigh, and jetted across the state to St. Petersburg, where four Phillies executives, including club president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak, waited on the tarmac to greet the pitcher. The entire event was captured Hollywood-style by two team videographers and posted on social media. It was an idea that Middleton and Phillies vice president of communications Bonnie Clark came up with. And if it all sent a message, then fine.

“I want people to understand that we’re going to do things in the best way we can possibly do it — first class,” Middleton said after Arrieta’s introductory news conference Tuesday (more from that here).

“It’s a message to everybody, not just free agents. I want everybody in our organization to understand what our mission is and how we're supposed to go about it. I want the players on our roster not named Jake Arrieta to understand what our mission is, our coaches, front office, our fans, other organizations. We’re serious about winning and we’re going to do what it takes to win.”

Rides on fancy private jets don’t win games. But the guys who win games for teams do like that stuff. Just ask Arrieta's agent, Scott Boras.

“Sometimes organizations want to portray to the player community things that are important to players,” said Boras, who spent time schmoozing with Middleton after the news conference. “Jake goes to Philadelphia for a physical and the Middleton family has its plane waiting to take him down here. A lot of organizations don’t do that. He arrives down here and everyone from the staff is there late at night to meet him. That says a lot about how sensitive they are to player needs and what’s important to players. When you respect players like that — those are things that will ring true to players about how they want to be treated and how they are respected in addition to the competitive nature of the team.”

From upgrades to player facilities at Citizens Bank Park and in Clearwater to technology and other player-improvement equipment, “We’re going to give you all the tools you need to win,” Middleton said. “You’re going to have to take advantage of them because we’re going to have high expectations.”

Arrieta will make $30 million this season, $25 million in 2019 and $20 million in 2020. Middleton encouraged Klentak to go to $30 million this season to recognize Arrieta’s elite status. That’s part of the free-agent game — respect and messages of respect that resonate all around the game.

Middleton said he had circled Arrieta’s name as a potential free-agent target years ago.

Who gets the next ride on Air Middleton?

“That’s a conversation for another day,” the Phillies owner said. “But, trust me, they are circled.”