CLEARWATER, Fla. — Dressed in red gym shorts and T-shirts emblazoned with the words Train to Reign, two dozen Phillies pitchers and catchers went through one final informal workout on the green lawns of Carpenter Complex on Monday.
Stuff gets real, as they say, Tuesday morning when pitchers and catchers go through their first official workout of spring training.
Not long ago, this day was accompanied by the electric buzz of high expectations and World Series hopes. The Phillies hope those days return soon, but for now, they remain an active construction site as they enter Season 3 of a rebuild.
There have been signs of progress in the reconstruction. Most tangibly, the team improved by eight wins, finishing with 71, last season.
Another sign of growth can be seen in the improved depth in the team’s starting pitching ranks.
When the rebuild started, the starting pitching depth was in bad shape. A series of trades — some by current general manager Matt Klentak, others by former GM Ruben Amaro Jr. — and the maturation of a handful of prospects has improved it greatly.
That depth will be on display as camp officially begins Tuesday. The Phillies have 15 starting pitchers on their 40-man roster and 10 of them have come to the organization in trades since the rebuild started after the 2014 season.
As the rebuild continues, pitching will remain a focus.
Club president Andy MacPhail made that much clear in a state of the team meeting with reporters on Monday.
“After improving the pitching, the next thing we should do is improve the pitching, and then after that, we should improve the pitching,” MacPhail said.
The Phillies are a big-market team with large revenues. MacPhail is confident that the team can attract big bats through free agency. His goal remains building with a foundation of arms.
“My experience has been that you can find the hitters,” he said, citing Klentak’s offseason additions of Howie Kendrick (trade) and Michael Saunders (free-agent signing). “Particularly in our ballpark. And we have resources. When you have to sign pitchers through free agency — they’re fragile, they’re expensive. There are times when you’re going to have to do it, but the more you can avoid it, the more you should. To me, it’s about pitching.”
The Phillies brought back veteran Jeremy Hellickson and traded for another, Clay Buchholz, to lead a still developing starting staff that will include Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez and Aaron Nola in 2017 — with promising arms like Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Alec Asher, Adam Morgan and Nick Pivetta knocking on the door.
The rotation will certainly be respectable. It should keep the Phillies in a lot of games for six or so innings most nights.
It’s not difficult to envision the Phillies making the next step and improving on those 71 wins in 2017.
Manager Pete Mackanin believes the team can push .500.
“I've been around too long to get involved with that,” he said with a laugh. “I'm focused not so much on a number for next year. I'd like to see improvement. That can demonstrate itself in a lot of ways. So I'm looking for improvement — measurable, meaningful improvement. That could just be in the number of players that look like they can be pieces for the future. I think that's my goal for 2017.
“The fans and the media are pretty sophisticated. They're going to know improvement when they see it. I wouldn't put a number by it. Sometimes you can move the win number up but not really have a good year. We're trying to create a foundation for a baseball franchise. The more players that demonstrate on our current team that they belong and are part of the future and the more players that percolate up from our system that demonstrate they can be part of our future, that's a good year.”
Phillies management and ownership has repeatedly said that it will spend significant money on free agents once the team develops a solid core of players. Mackanin made that clear this winter when he said: “Over the last couple of years it’s been, as I call it, an experiment. We’re trying to find out who’s going to fit in and bide time until we’re going to spend a little bit of money and make our move.”
The Phillies spent over $65 million in acquiring (through trades and signings) and retaining veterans this winter. No, it wasn't the $125 million they spent on Cliff Lee a few winters ago, but those days will come again, possibly in two years when a mega free-agent class featuring Bryce Harper and Manny Machado hits the market.
“We could have had a year where we let our payroll slip way down,” MacPhail said. “Quite frankly our ownership doesn’t have a great appetite for that. One year with the worst record in baseball (2015) was enough for them.”
It’s not out of the question that the Phillies make a splash even before the free-agent class of 2018 hits the market. Some of the talent in that projected class could become available in trades as soon as this July.
The Phillies will have their antennae up for these types of deals and they’ve added enough young talent that they could swing one of them.
“We know that as teams fall out of contention, they are going to be looking at opportunities to get the maximum amount for their playing talent and often that comes as a result of a trade maybe a year or two prior to free agency,” MacPhail said. “Our goal is to be ready for that eventuality, identify those teams that might find themselves in that situation and be ready to move if the opportunity presents itself.”
MacPhail’s final comment on the eve of spring training 2017 captured the goal of the season:
“Let’s stay on track,” he said.