By the end of September, if Phillies manager Pete Mackanin wasn't quite standing atop the Citizens Bank Park pitcher's mound with a signal flare in one hand and a Hey Matt, we need a veteran bat sign in the other, he was close enough to make his point.
The Phillies scored 610 runs last season, 39 fewer than any other team in the major leagues. "Last in the world," Mackanin said recently. And as game No. 162 got closer and closer, Mackanin became more emboldened to make public his pleas to general manager Matt Klentak. The message couldn't have been clearer: In the minds of Mackanin and his coaches, the promising young players on the roster and in the farm system weren't enough. The Phillies needed a hitter or two who had done it before.
"We're all pretty much in agreement," he told reporters before one game. "We need more hitting."
The solution wasn't as simple as having Klentak sign a couple of free agents or swing a blockbuster trade. He and Mackanin agreed that, all things being equal, the Phillies wanted whenever possible to promote from within to fill positions that were vacant or required upgrading. But the situation had to be handled just so. On the one hand, it would do the Phillies no good in the long term to commit several years and major dollars to a veteran who might block a prospect's path to the majors. On the other hand, to Mackanin the value in adding a more-accomplished hitter went beyond pure production. Maikel Franco, Freddy Galvis, Tommy Joseph: These less-experienced guys could ask questions of, chat hitting with, and learn a little something from . . . whom, exactly? Ryan Howard, who struck out in roughly 30 percent of his plate appearances? Andres Blanco, who had never been more than a utility man?
To his credit, Klentak negotiated that tightrope. From the Dodgers, for the reasonable price of Darin Ruf and Darnell Sweeney, he acquired Howie Kendrick, a career .289 hitter over 11 major-league seasons, who had one year left on his contract. Then Klentak signed outfielder Michael Saunders, who hit 24 home runs last season for the Blue Jays, to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018.
Yes, Kendrick, after averaging 53 extra-base hits per 162 games over the previous seven seasons, tailed off last season to a .255 average and 36 extra-base hits in 543 plate appearances - a possible sign that his career is in full decline. Yes, Saunders batted just .178 and slugged just .357 after the all-star break. But the gamble that Klentak took on each was smart, with minimal risk. Even if Kendrick and Saunders are never again the hitters they used to be, their contract situations allow Klentak to maintain that all-important roster flexibility, and the human capital they can provide might help.
"It was important to have at least one guy - and this was my thing - with a professional approach, to show the young guys, like the Francos and the Galvises of the world and even Cameron Rupp, all the younger guys, how to approach situations in games," Mackanin said. "During the course of the season, talk to these young guys and explain, 'What do you like to do in this situation? What are you looking for from this guy?' And I think that could rub off a lot.
"We talk so much about having veteran starters in the rotation with the younger pitchers. Likewise, it's nice to have a veteran hitter who can share his thoughts and who's had success. A guy like Kendrick can just maybe put something in somebody's ear and have them say, 'You know, I've never thought about it. I've never looked at it that way.' The whole idea was to get at least one guy, and I said, 'Well, how about two guys?' "
No one can dispute that the Phillies could use an injection of savvy and professionalism into their everyday lineup. Last season, they finished last in the majors in slugging percentage and next-to-last in walks and on-base percentage. Just six teams struck out more frequently. Some of those struggles may turn out to be impossible to correct, functions of hitters who have weaknesses that they can never strengthen or overcome. But it's too early in the careers of Franco, Joseph, et al, to know for certain that they won't mature, and at this stage, it's just as possible that, with some tweaking and tutoring and more experience, those younger hitters can improve in the intricacies of hitting: how to use the entire field, how to get your pitch, how to drive your pitch once you've gotten it. (It will be interesting to see if Matt Stairs, the Phillies' new hitting coach, makes any inroads in this area.)
Maybe Kendrick and Saunders have enough left to model that behavior for the rest of the lineup. Maybe their greatest value will be as player-instructors. Maybe they won't make a lick of difference. No matter what happens, the Phillies had nothing to lose by bringing them in. You can't be worse than last in the world.