SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — On Day 1 of baseball’s general managers meetings, Matt Klentak stood by his recent comment, you know, the bold one where he said it was time for the Phillies to win “right now, no questions asked.”
“That’s what I believe,” Klentak said as the meetings kicked into gear Tuesday. “Our roster is constructed in such a way that we have a core of talent on the club right now that is in the prime of their career. We have a dedicated ownership and organization that’s ready for it. We have a fan base that wants it. And it’s time.”
The Phillies entered 2019 with new toys (Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto) and high hopes of ending a playoff drought that has lasted way too long. But that drought grew to eight seasons when the Phillies went 81-81 and finished in fourth place in the NL East. Injuries hit the Phillies hard in 2019 but so did ineffectiveness in the starting rotation. The X-rays and MRIs will be clean when camp opens in Clearwater in three months. But will there be an infusion of talent in the rotation? It’s a must if the Phillies are to win right now.
“A lot of good teams in recent years have been constructed in different ways,” Klentak said. “The Washington Nationals just won the World Series largely on the strength of some horses in their rotation. Kansas City won a few years ago with kind of a bullpen-dominated team and speed and defense.
“I don’t think the next Phillies championship team has to be built in one way, but I do think as we look at some of our challenges last year and some of the areas where we can improve, I think placing a focus on the mound is definitely one of those areas. Now, it doesn’t mean that we have to go add multiple top-of-the-rotation starters, but the rotation is definitely an area that we are going to look into this winter.”
You can bet the Phillies will do more than look into improving the rotation this winter. They will get right in there and mix it up for some of the top free-agent arms. The class is led by Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. It also includes Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner and Jake Odorizzi.
There is already talk that Cole could command a multi-year deal worth more than $250 million and with the Los Angeles Angels and New York Yankees both expected to be strongly in the bidding, the number could rise high above that.
Strasburg opted out of the final four years and $100 million of his contract with the Washington Nationals. He and agent Scott Boras (he also reps Cole) would not have done that if they weren’t certain of a bigger pay day.
The Phillies have the wallet to make a play for a Cole or a Strasburg, as well as any other pitcher on the market. Signing one of these pitchers, however, would require the Phillies’ forfeiting their second pick in next year’s draft. Klentak is not a fan of losing draft picks — no general manager is — but for the right guy, he would part with the pick. He did it last year for Harper.
“You just have to operate case by case,” Klentak said. “Draft picks have a certain value and sometimes you might be willing to forfeit that value and sometimes you may not.”
Klentak’s boss, club president Andy MacPhail, has long expressed a general distaste for conducting business in the free-agent pitching market. Just too many risks. MacPhail is a proponent of buying hitters and growing pitchers. But the Phils haven’t grown too many pitchers lately — right-hander Spencer Howard is knocking on the door but Klentak on Tuesday reiterated his comments from September that Howard needs time in Triple A — and that forced them to sign Jake Arrieta two years ago and make a run at Patrick Corbin last winter. Arrieta has not lived up to his $75 million price tag. He is 18-19 in two seasons with the Phils and required season-ending elbow surgery in September. The Phillies offered Corbin a five-year contract last winter but would not go six years. Corbin got that sixth year in Washington and quickly paid off in helping the Nationals win the World Series last month.
To get a top starter in this market — and maybe even a second-tier starter — the Phillies will probably have to be willing to go more than five years. Will their profound need for pitching and their desperation to win push them to do that?
For the right guy — probably.
“Pitching is fragile and if you’re relying on free-agent starting pitching to build your organization, you go into that knowing you may be left disappointed at some point in that contract,” Klentak said. “Even the Phillies during their great run from ’07 to ‘11, some of the more notable pitchers (Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee) that they brought in were really good at the front end of those contracts and not healthy at the back end of those contracts.
“So, you just have to know the pitfalls, know what you’re getting into. I don’t like to operate in absolutes, to say that we would or would never do something. I never thought we’d sign a position player (Harper) to a 13-year contract but we did it. You want to be open-minded and operate without absolutes, but at the same time you want to go in understanding your realities and some of the risks.”
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