Matt Klentak has two objects mounted on the largest wall in his office at Citizens Bank Park. Taking up most of the wall is a giant flatscreen television. Next to it is a framed Eagles No. 11 jersey, signed by Carson Wentz. On Tuesday afternoon, Klentak had a ballgame on — the Lehigh Valley Ironpigs, the Phillies’ triple-A affiliate, were playing in Syracuse — and the scene presented an interesting juxtaposition. There he was, glancing again and again at the TV, at players who might yet be part of the Phillies’ future. And there it was, that Wentz jersey, a reminder of Philadelphia’s most recent championship, just a year-and-a-half ago, and of the franchise here that appears best positioned to win another.
That’s the tug and pull that every team in this city faces sooner or later, and with Klentak as their general manager, the Phillies are just confronting it this season. This month, really. They had lost seven straight games before the Mets, the cure for anything that ails anyone, rolled into town. The slump inspired so much public discontent that Klentak felt compelled to address Gabe Kapler’s job status with reporters Monday, telling them that Kapler would remain the team’s manager for the rest of the season. But then the Phillies rallied to win Tuesday, 7-5, after walloping the Mets 13-7 on Monday, and suddenly it was easier for everyone to take the long view again – the same perspective Klentak does his best to maintain.
“It’s not as hard as you think,” he said Tuesday in an interview. “We spend as much time watching the minor-league games as we do the major-league games. We have a lot of things we are working on at all times that are not purely obsessing over which relief pitcher came in in the sixth inning and gave up a bloop single. We watch that. We discuss that. We get frustrated by that. But there are a lot of other things that allow us to focus on the big picture of this organization.”
The maelstrom was hardly surprising. This is Philadelphia. We specialize in getting worked up. So a bad run of games can’t merely be a bad run of games. It must be the beginning of another collapse. It must be an indication that Klentak’s offseason of spending and transacting – the acquisitions of Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, David Robertson – was just an expensive succession of fool’s errands. Something must change – fire Kapler, fire Klentak, trade this guy, trade that guy – because the Phillies haven’t had a winning season in eight years, and dammit, the fans have waited too long to feel the fun of winning again.
That environment often makes this town a hellish place to try to be prudent, to try to do the hard, smart things that a sports franchise must do to dig itself out of a deep hole. The 76ers tried it with Sam Hinkie and gave up after less than three years. The Flyers tried it with Ron Hextall and gave up after less than five. The Phillies have been at it for four years now under Klentak and president Andy MacPhail. Those time periods might sound interminable. They’re not, not for franchises that had so far to go in rebuilding their infrastructures and cultures. But this is not and has never been a patient sports town, and the speed with which the Eagles went from laughingstock (in firing Chip Kelly) to legendary (in winning a Super Bowl two years later) didn’t alleviate any of that pressure. It intensified it. Yeah, we don’t care that, because of the salary cap and player movement, it’s a little easier to reverse your fortunes in the NFL. The rest of ya, go win. Now.
In this regard, the Phillies could turn out to be an excellent test case, an opportunity to see whether their principal owner, John Middleton, really has the courage of his convictions when it comes to the plan to return the team to World Series contention. Even after all the Phillies’ eye-popping offseason acquisitions, the customary betting line/projection model had them as an 88-89-win team. The losing streak had shifted those numbers. As of Tuesday morning, FiveThirtyEight had them winning 83 games this season, and Fangraphs projected them to finish 81-81.
Suppose, in a worst-case scenario, that the Phillies did end up with a .500 record this season. It would be a disappointment, of course, an underachievement. But then what? Middleton certainly has a bias toward action, but exactly what radical changes would he expect Klentak – or another GM – to make? Rhys Hoskins won’t be a free agent until after the 2023 season. Segura is under contract through 2022. McCutchen has two more years on his deal. J.T. Realmuto isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2020 season, and the club hopes to re-sign him. Aaron Nola is signed through 2022 with a club option for 2023. Scott Kingery is signed through 2023 with club options for 2024, 2025, and 2026. Harper will grow old here. The Phillies aren’t “all in” in any meaningful sense in this season. This core will be here a while. It’s how they arranged this rebuild.
“It was done in such a way that we felt like we could build a competitive team for a sustainable period,” Klentak said. “Some of those years, you’re going to be luckier than others with injuries and performance. It’s impossible to project over a 5-to-10-year stretch exactly which years you’re going to be better than others.
“The point being, you don’t want to go through another rebuilding phase. We want to give ourselves a chance every year. I think we’ve been pretty transparent about those goals. Our owner set some pretty clear goals for the offseason. We’ve had some good moments. We’ve had some normal moments. And more recently, we’ve had some bad moments.”