From his hot seat, GM Matt Klentak sizes up Phillies, luxury tax and chances of big pickup like Kris Bryant

From his hot seat, GM Matt Klentak sizes up Phillies, luxury tax and chances of big pickup like Kris Bryant

CLEARWATER, Fla. — On the second day of spring training, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak doubled down on comments he made back in October when he said it was time for the team to win.

“It's time to take another step forward and produce a winning season and play baseball in October,” Klentak said at a Thursday news conference at Camp Clearwater.

Klentak is on the hot seat as he begins his fifth season on the job. The club has yet to have a winning season under his watch, though winning wasn’t expected early in his tenure as the team navigated a rebuild. The arrival of Carlos Santana on a three-year, $60 million contract and Jake Arrieta on a three-year, $75 million contract before the 2018 season ramped up the stakes but the Phillies finished a game under .500 in 2018 and .500 last year. 

There’s no doubt that the Phillies were hurt by injuries last season, particularly on the pitching staff and atop the batting order, where the leadoff spot was a sinkhole after Andrew McCutchen went down, but these mitigating factors did not stop ownership from stepping in and ordering the firing of Klentak’s handpicked manager, Gabe Kapler, and anything less than a winning season and a serious run at playing October baseball in 2020 might mean a similar fate for the GM.

Deep down inside, Klentak knows all of this. He’s too sharp not to.

But on Day 2 of spring training, he was optimistic and confident that the Phils could make the October tournament.

“We have the talent,” he said. “We've got a winning manager (Joe Girardi) to do that. We've got committed ownership. We've added players to the roster this year to help get us there. I think that's true. I think that's what our fans want. I know that's what our owners want and it's what I want. That's why Joe is here because that's what Joe wants.

“We won 81 games last year and we had a lot of things go wrong for us, which we’ve talked about all winter. When you take that baseline and add (pitcher) Zack Wheeler, (shortstop) Didi Gregorius, Joe Girardi, (pitching coach) Bryan Price and (hitting coach) Joe Dillon and add a lot of the pitching and bench depth that we’ve added for spring training, I think it’s very reasonable to project that this year’s club is going to be better than last year’s club.

“Now, are we going to need better health? Yes. 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 break out. They have a veteran have a career year. They stay healthy. Things like that happen. I think that we’re lining up and if we get some of those contributions I just mentioned, we will very much be in the mix with the other three teams in our division.”

The Phillies spent $118 million on Wheeler and $14 million on Gregorius by mid-December. Despite a number of remaining holes, the Phils made just marginal acquisitions the rest of the winter. The team is approaching the $208 million luxury-tax threshold and there is a reluctance to exceed it, though the stance could be softened for the right acquisition.

“By no means is it a hard cap,” Klentak explained. “Our ownership has always encouraged us to pursue every opportunity, and if we think it makes sense from a baseball perspective, to bring it to them. There have been a couple instances the past few years where we have brought something to them and we’ve decided to exceed whatever our internal budget was to make that move. I certainly believe them when they say that. They’ve got a track record of following through on that.”

A player like Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, who has two years remaining before free agency, might be “the right acquisition” to prompt ownership to go over the luxury tax and Phillies officials have surely spoken with Cubs officials about the player. But before a team like the Phillies can even ponder making room in the budget for a player like Bryant and his $18.6 million salary, it has to line up talent-wise on a trade. Dealing for any top talent won’t be easy for the Phillies because they are thin on prospects that other teams covet. The Phils, with a shortage of young, impact pitching, just cannot give up a young pitcher like Spencer Howard.

“Some of the names (that are available) would certainly put us over (the tax),” Klentak said. “We never got to the point of really asking ownership about that because we 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 (the tax) as a hard barrier.”

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Forgotten Phillies opening day starters of the last 30 years

Forgotten Phillies opening day starters of the last 30 years

Steve Carlton, Terry Mulholland, Curt Schilling, Roy Halladay. There are certain eras of Phillies baseball over the last 40 years when you knew who was going to have the honor of being named opening day starter before spring training even started. This year, Aaron Nola was poised to take the ball for his third straight opening-day start. 

Since Carlton’s incredible run of starting 14 out of 15 openers, there have been 15 pitchers tabbed to start the season off for the Phillies but not all were household names. Here’s a look back at some of the pitchers you may have forgotten got the nod in Game 1 of 162.

2005-06: Jon Lieber

Lieber had a couple of pretty good seasons with the Cubs early in the 2000s, was an All-Star in ’01 when he won 20 games and started three straight Opening Days for them. But after having Tommy John surgery, he signed with the Yankees, missed all of ’03 and then bounced back with a solid 2004, good enough for the Phillies to sign him.

He won that '05 opener for the Phillies and had a pretty good campaign, winning 17 games and leading the NL in starts. He pitched another two unremarkable years for the Phils, going 12-17 with a 4.87 ERA.

2001/02: Omar Daal/Robert Person

Lumping these two together because it was a transition time for the Phillies. In the midst of their seventh straight sub-.500 finish, the Phillies traded ace Curt Schilling in July of 2000 to Arizona for four players, one of which was Daal. The lefty ended up losing 19 games in 2000, one game short of becoming the first pitcher in 20 years to lose 20. But that was good enough to earn (?) him the opening day start in 2001, the first with Larry Bowa as manager. Daal had a better year, going 13-7, but did have a 4.46 ERA.

Person also had a very solid season, going 15-7 with a 4.19 ERA. That got him the start in the 2002 opener, but he never found the same success on the mound as he did in ’01. At the plate, however, he had one of the more memorable days for a Phillies pitcher this century in a June game vs. Montreal. He hit a grand slam and a 3-run homer, going 3 for 4 with seven RBI.

2000: Andy Ashby

Ashby had come up in the Phillies system in the late '80s and actually made his MLB debut for the club in 1991. He was drafted by the Rockies in the expansion draft and ended up in San Diego, where he flourished. He was a two-time all-star, started a couple of openers and helped lead the Padres to the NL title in 1998.

When the Phillies traded three prospects for Ashby before 2000, they thought it gave them a legit 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation to go along with Schilling (who missed the beginning of 2000 due to injury). However, that didn’t work out. After going 4-7 with a 5.68 ERA, Ashby was traded during the All-Star break to the Braves for Bruce Chen.

1996: Sid Fernandez

Did you even remember Sid Fernandez was a Phillie? From 1994 through 1999, Schilling started five of six opening days for the Phils. When he started ’96 on the DL, in stepped Fernandez for the opening day honor. “El Sid” had some really good seasons with the vaunted Mets staff of the '80s, making a couple of All-Star games and helping them win a World Series.

Almost a decade later, he signed with the Phillies for the second half of the ’95 season and did well, posting a 3.34 ERA and going 6-1. He wasn’t as effective in ’96, which basically ended his career (he pitched one game for Houston the next season).

1990: Bruce Ruffin

Remembered more for his Chris Berman-given nickname, Bruce “Two Minutes For” Ruffin’s career started with a bang. He went 9-4 with a 2.46 ERA for the Phillies in 1986. But it kind of went downhill from there. Over the next five years with the club, he never finished above .500 and had only one year with an ERA below 4.00. But he got the opening day start in 1990 because someone had to. Partly because…

1989: Floyd Youmans

Maybe the original “new guy” that got the nod for the Phillies, Floyd Youmans had a promising start to his career in Montreal. He started the opener in ’87 at the age of 23, but injuries and a suspension derailed his time there. Before the 1989 season, the Phillies got him in a trade for Kevin Gross. Youmans started only 10 games for the Phillies in what was his final MLB season.

1987-1988: Shane Rawley

Rawley actually had a few good years with the Phils. He made the All-Star team in 1986 and won 17 games with a 3.54 ERA. In ’85, he won 13 with a 3.31. So when it came time to replace Carlton for Opening Day, the torch was passed to Rawley.

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What an opening weekend this would have been for Phillies

What an opening weekend this would have been for Phillies

"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone." — A. Bartlett Giamatti

Of all the quotes about baseball I have read, the beginning of Bart Giamatti's essay "The Green Fields of the Mind" is the one that paints a picture (in oil, of course) of my connection to and love of baseball.

In three sentences we are taken from the renewal of spring to lazy summer afternoons and evenings at the ballpark and finally, to the ache of autumn as the game leaves us for the year.

This year, with fairly little warning, the heartbreak came early. Spring fever actually came with a ... real fever.

We had opening weekend on tap. The Phillies visiting the Miami Marlins. We would take the wraps off a revamped Phillies roster and get a feel for our new set of wheels this season.
What do we have? A team to be truly excited about? Not enough horses? Can Bryce Harper pick up where he left off? Will Jake Arrieta and Rhys Hoskins bounce back?

My watch signals game time.

My phone reminds me, too.

Do the watch and the phone know what they're doing to me?

If you've been a baseball fan since you were a kid, on opening weekend there is a sense of "school's out!" even though you've got two months left. What it is, really, is the promise of summer, laid out in 360 feet of basepath and three acres of the lushest Kentucky Bluegrass you've ever smelled.

As with this opening weekend, the weather is unpredictably tantalizing. Thursday gorgeous, Friday the same, Saturday wet, Sunday back in the drink.

All of that would have been OK. The Marlins play in a dome. The games would be played regardless of weather.

Would have been a good weekend to stay inside.

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