CLEARWATER, Fla. -- When last we heard from Phillies president Andy MacPhail, he was bemoaning the inconsistencies of the 2018 team that tumbled from first place and 15 games over .500 in early August to third place and two games under .500 at season’s end. He called that team, “the most inconsistent I’ve ever been associated with.”
That was quite a damning statement considering his baseball career has spanned five decades with five teams. Inconsistency, however, was not the only thing that got under MacPhail’s skin during his third full season with the Phillies. He also grew weary of manager Gabe Kapler’s perpetual state of positivity and promised it would be addressed during a postseason dinner date.
It was, and the manager has the full support of the team president even after a somewhat tumultous offseason.
Spring training has always been baseball’s great attitude adjuster, and MacPhail’s vision of the 2019 Phillies at a Friday afternoon news conference was a rosy one even though the team still has not reeled in one of the two big free-agent fish as spring training gets set to enter its second week.
“Despite the fact that we finished as abysmally as we did, we went ahead and made the judgment that this was the time to augment the payroll and support that 2018 group,” MacPhail said. “At my year-end review I was pretty honest about the areas I thought our team needed to improve.
“The first was defense. The second was we had a poor record in our division, which I attributed to the fact that we had a hard time combating good left-handed hitting lineups, which are the Nats, Mets, and Braves. A lot of their wampum was from the left side and we had a hard time combating that, especially in the later innings.
"The third thing I talked about was the consistency, and that was probably a function of how young the team was. I look at those three things that I talked about and I’m pretty happy with how they have been addressed.”
The Phillies went 34-42 against the N.L. East last season and 23-34 against Atlanta, Washington, and the Mets, the three teams that are likely to challenge them for the division title this season. They also had a 4.70 earned run average against left-handed hitters, which ranked 23rd among baseball’s 30 teams.
By comparison, they had a 3.69 ERA against right-handed hitters, which was seventh in baseball. To combat the left-handed problem, the Phillies added left-handers James Pazos and Jose Alvarez in trades. But their biggest move was signing right-hander David Robertson, who has held lefties to a .188 average during his 11 big-league seasons.
The starting rotation, on the other hand, remains entirely right-handed.
The team president said it would be difficult for anyone to look at the 2019 Phillies here in the early days of spring training and say they are not better than the 2018 team. He’s right, of course, but this, the fourth season that MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak have been together, is not about just being better. It is entirely about being good enough to reach the postseason while also starting a string of seasons in which the Phillies are World Series contenders.
This is, after all, a franchise that has not been to the playoffs since 2011.
“I don’t think this organization really committed to a rebuild until July of 2015,” MacPhail said.
It actually started in December 2014, when Jimmy Rollins was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Zach Eflin, a pitcher who is projected to be in the Phillies’ starting rotation this season.
Regardless, everyone seems to be in agreement that the rebuilding process is over for the Phillies. At the year-end review, MacPhail described managing partner John Middleton as “crabby” during the team’s late-season collapse.
You have to imagine that Middleton’s mood would be even worse if the Phillies fail to reach the postseason this year. We are all still waiting, of course, for Middleton to speak extensively about his team after offering this November sound bite to USA Today: “We’re going into this expecting to spend money. And maybe even be a little bit stupid about it. We just prefer not to be completely stupid."
For the record, Middleton has had perfect attendance at the Phillies’ spring-training news conferences, but he has chosen to remain publicly silent.
To his credit, the owner has opened the checkbook. According to spotrac.com, the Phillies have spent more than $140 million on players since the end of last season, which includes the free-agent signings of Robertson and Andrew McCutchen as well as the $45 million contract they gave to staff ace Aaron Nola this week.
Team expenditures for arbitration-eligible players also went up when they acquired J.T. Realmuto from the Miami Marlins. Realmuto will make $5.9 million this season. Only the New York Yankees, Washington Nationals, and Los Angeles Dodgers have spent more. The Phillies would likely pass all three if they sign either Harper or Machado. They would also jump back into the top 10 team payrolls for the first time since 2015 if they sign one of the free-agent stars.
Even if they do not, MacPhail and Klentak insist the Phillies have made considerable improvements.
“Like I said before when I went through the needs I thought we had a year ago, I think they’ve been addressed,” MacPhail said. “I think it would be a hard thing to make a case that we are not a considerably better team than we were a year ago for a variety of reasons.
"I would like us to get better yet as we all would. It’s conceivable that may happen, but it may not. But if it doesn’t happen we’re still going to be a considerably better team than we were a year ago.”