Yesterday, the Phillies front office made yet another signing in the hopes of competing for the playoffs within the next couple of years. Michael Saunders, a left-handed hitting outfielder who played in Toronto last season, is projected to be starting in a corner outfield spot on opening day for Pete Mackanin’s club. Saunders fills the hole in the lineup that was briefly plugged by a plethora of minor league-caliber hitters in 2016. But the signing of the lefty is so much more than simply a signing of a productive player to a one-year, team-friendly contract. It is yet another example of how impressive Matt Klentak has been this offseason, and how he is taking the Phillies from laughing stock to competitive in a short time while keeping an emphasis on youth.
Three-and-a-half months ago, at the end of the 2016 season, there were more holes in the roster than the average fan could list. The starting rotation was completely reliant on young arms without major league experience and comfortability pitching 150-plus innings in a season. There was only one outfielder prepared to become an everyday outfielder in the major leagues. The bullpen was one of the weakest in Major League Baseball, and when watching games, fans and management alike knew that no game was safe, despite the lead. For a team that had so many trade chips at deadlines in year’s past, only Jeremy Hellickson had any true value on July 31 of 2016. In addition to each of these factors, there was pressure for the prospects to come onto the team and make an immediate impact. The pressure of showing out at such a young age could hinder the careers of those players expected to become franchise cornerstones.
But as of yesterday afternoon, when Matt Klentak brought another outfielder onto his roster, the perfection of the Phillies’ offseason was again reiterated.
Clay Buchholz was brought into Philadelphia via trade, and he provides a veteran presence in a rotation that relied heavily on inexperienced arms throwing hefty innings. He also serves as a possible trade candidate at the deadline, perhaps he will provide a solid prospect as return for an already deeper-than-average farm system. In addition to the veteran presence and trade value, he is on the final year of his contract. So if the experiment doesn’t work out, there is no harm done.
Howie Kendrick, Odubel Herrera, and Michael Saunders will most likely be starting in the outfield for the Phillies on opening day. The opening day outfield in 2016 was Cedric Hunter, Odubel Herrera, and Peter Bourjos. Hunter lasted about 3 weeks in the major leagues before being sent to Lehigh Valley for the remainder of the year. Finally there is a trio of capable outfielders who can make a pitcher pay for his mistakes. No longer will fans have to shudder at the fact that the right fielder is up to bat with the bases loaded and two outs because “there is no chance that he gets on base here.” Each of the three outfielders in the projected 2017 lineup have been named to an all-star game. It is about time that the Phillies have some hitting threats out of the infield.
But the newest outfielders are not expected to be there when the team returns to championship contention. To be able to sign two capable outfielders to one-year contracts as placeholders while highly-anticipated prospects develop in the minor leagues makes the entire organization more sufficient from an entertainment and a management aspect. Kendrick and Saunders will play their way into being traded at the deadline or being given another one year contract with Philadelphia until one or more of the younger outfielders are prepared to make the leap into the majors.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the 2016 Phillies team was the bullpen. Watching a solid outing from a starter go to waste because a reliever who should not have been pitching in the major leagues came in and was completely manhandled by the top of a lineup is one of the most heartbreaking situations that a baseball fan can experience. Klentak addressed that issue when he traded for Pat Neshek and signed Joaquin Benoit. These moves are again a case of holding place while development takes place. The two relievers acquired are each in their mid-30s and do not appear to fit the timeline of the Phillies rebuilding process. However, they will pitch a significant amount of important innings for the Phillies this season while the team attempts to improve yet again upon their season win total.
And you may have guessed it, but each of the pitchers is on a one-year contract. Once again, Klentak improved the roster without committing to big money contracts over long periods of time. A great management move that keeps all options open for the future.
Throughout the rebuilding process members of the front office have stressed time and time again that no prospect will be rushed into the major leagues. If there wasn’t enough proof that they were holding strong to the plan, every move made so far has further emphasized the blueprint. Making it known to the prospects that there is no rush for them to develop takes a weight off the shoulders of any player. Without the thought that they must improve as quickly as possible, a younger player can go out every day and work on his game at a steady pace.
The youth in the farm system will worry only about improving each’s own game without the pressure of being required to arrive at Citizens Bank Park as soon as possible. And when those prospects do finally make the final step to The Show, there will be veterans on hand to give tips and tricks as to how it works in the bigs.
Matt Klentak’s offseason has just further asserted that the Phillies will not accelerate the rebuild to the detriment of the team, but they will look to stay competitive throughout the entire process. If the front office sticks to their plan and development of the best minor league system in baseball progresses as it has, the Phils will be World Series contenders much sooner than expected. Gone are the days of 9th innings losses and “auto-outs” from the 6-8 spots in the lineup, and we all have Klentak and Co. to thank.