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.”