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Inside the Phillies: Pursuit of Manny Machado, Bryce Harper continues after winter meetings

"Until players sign somewhere else, we’re going to maintain our engagement with them,” general manager Matt Klentak says.

The winter meetings, and meetings with agent Scott Boras, have ended.
The winter meetings, and meetings with agent Scott Boras, have ended.Read moreJanie McCauley / AP

LAS VEGAS — The Phillies brass emptied out its 62nd-floor suite Thursday morning, checked out of the Mandalay Bay, and headed for the airport.

The winter meetings ended, and as expected, the Phillies boarded their flight home without Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. Before the team’s suite was cleared, it played host to the agents of both players. But even a beautiful view of Vegas was not enough to bring the two sides together. The high-stakes game rolls on.

The Phillies, Matt Klentak said a few times this week, are looking at ways to “move the needle” on their roster. Nothing would move the needle more — both on and off the field — than signing Harper or Machado. They expect to host Machado, whom they seem to prefer over Harper, next week for a recruiting trip at Citizens Bank Park. They will continue to have dialogue with Harper.

The Phillies entered the offseason as the betting favorites to land both players. They had the most money to spend and an owner who was ready to “be stupid.” It almost seemed inevitable a month ago that the Phillies would report to spring training with a superstar in their clubhouse.

But four days in Vegas were enough to see that the Phillies have stiff competition. Signing Machado or Harper will not be as simple as opening the vault. In an almost a worst-case scenario, the Dodgers and Yankees have emerged as suitors. The Dodgers want Harper. The Yankees want both.

The allure of playing in Hollywood or wearing pinstripes could be worth more than even a blank check. The winter meetings began with the Yankees saying they were out on Harper. It ended with them jumping back in and general manager Brian Cashman saying the team was “a fully operational Death Star.” Klentak better know how to pilot an X-Wing.

Yet, the Phillies still find themselves in the thick of the pack. Klentak said last week that “it almost always comes down to years and dollars.” It is hard to see the Phillies being outbid this winter. They backed off last week from left-handed starter Patrick Corbin. They shied away from lefty J.A. Happ. They seem to be disciplining themselves before a historic splurge.

The Phillies cannot force Harper or Machado to take their money, and they were forward-thinking this month to prepare just in case they lost out. They traded for shortstop Jean Segura before the winter meetings and signed outfielder Andrew McCutchen once they arrived in Vegas. The moves provided flexibility. Segura will play shortstop, unless Machado signs and wants to play there. McCutchen will play in a corner outfield, but the exact corner will be determined once Harper decides what uniform he wants to wear.

“You can’t put all of your eggs in any one basket in an offseason,” Klentak said. “We have to position ourselves in such a way that we can pivot when necessary. And we’ve begun that process. As I’ve told you for several weeks now, we’re not going to sit around and wait for things to come to us. If there are moves that we can make to move the needle, we’re going to move it.”

They might not upgrade their starting rotation, but they are actively trying to improve their bullpen and could sign both left-handed relievers Andrew Miller and Zach Britton. It was interesting this week when a report from The Athletic said the Phillies had pursued Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi for a relief role after his success working out of the bullpen in October. The game has shifted toward an emphasis on relievers, and the Phillies joined that evolution last season thanks to Gabe Kapler, who managed the bullpen in his own, unique way.

Klentak acknowledged the struggles his young rotation faced in the final two months of last season. But he is comfortable entering the season with the same unit instead of spending on a not-so-obvious upgrade. Perhaps, it would be wiser to spend more extravagantly in the bullpen and provide Kapler some more options for his late-inning laboratory.

“We have a very deep and high-floor bullpen with a lot of players who have a lot of different strengths, complementary strengths,” Klentak said. “I think that lends itself to the type of bullpen management we implemented last year. I’m very open to having a closer, but I’m not going to force that if the personnel don’t dictate that.”

Segura, McCutchen, and a few relievers were not what came to mind when Middleton said he was prepared to be “stupid” in his spending. The moves are enough to upgrade their roster, but they did little to move the needle when it comes to buzz in the city. That move, the one that will require the Phillies to spend stupidly and make a player stupid rich, could still be coming. It did not have to happen on the 62nd floor.

“Until players sign somewhere else, we’re going to maintain our engagement with them,” Klentak said. “There’s no reason to think that we’re out.”