DENVER — General manager Matt Klentak flew into Denver earlier this week, joining the Phillies in time for their final road series of the season. There was a time this summer when he might have considered packing an extra pair of goggles for the trip and an outfit that he wouldn't have minded getting soaked with champagne.
But there were no bottles popped this week in the visiting clubhouse at Coors Field. There was no division title to clinch or magic number to whittle down. Instead, Klentak sat in manager Gabe Kapler's office before each game of the series and conducted exit interviews with players. The Phillies spent their final road trip of the year assessing what went wrong.
"There's no other way to say it, the last six weeks have been awful. We've played poorly. We've lost games. It's been miserable for just about everybody up and down the organization," Klentak said. "What I don't think is true, though, is that this will define our season. I know we live in a very binary world where it's either a good season or a bad season and there's nothing in between, but I don't think that's realistic. I think we had a very productive season in a lot of ways and we also had a miserable stretch of baseball at the end of the season, and both of those things are true."
Klentak said he believes "significant changes are necessary" this offseason. The Phillies will try to lure a superstar via free agency. They have the money to offer, but it will be Bryce Harper's and Manny Machado's decisions to make. They will make several trades. There are just a handful of players who seem guaranteed to be in Clearwater in February. It is safe to assume, Klentak said, that next season's opening-day roster will be "slightly different" than the one with which the Phillies began this year.
But there will also be changes, Klentak said, "in the way we do things, which will also contribute to our success next year." Those changes were among the goals of the meeting Kapler and Klentak held this week. They discussed with each player how they can improve for 2019. If the Phillies are to contend in 2019, the significant changes made by their own players will just as vital as the superstar free agent they hope to sign. Would a Harper or Machado have been enough alone to stop this collapse?
"Let's not forget, we opened the season as the youngest team in baseball by a significant margin, almost a full year younger than the next-youngest team," Klentak said. "Young players get better. Not every single one of them in every single way, but as a general rule, young players will continue to develop, and grow, and get better."
As difficult as the final seven weeks of the season, Klentak's trip to Denver provided him with hope. His players, Klentak said, told him and Kapler in their meetings that they "learned a ton" this season. The collapse was brutal. The season was a disappointment. But if the team learns and grows from it, then perhaps it will have been worth it.
"It's been awful to go through, but our players are learning what it means to play hard and be physically strong enough to get through the rigors of a six-month season in contention," Klentak said. "People write it and people say it: Young players have to go through things like this. What does it mean? This is what it means: They're learning what it takes to be a championship team. And I think we're going to make progress in that regard because we have a lot of driven and dedicated players who are going to treat their offseasons differently."