The conclusion of the NFL season always means a couple things: The days will begin to get longer, the weather a bit warmer, and baseball season is just around the corner.
In just over a week, Phillies’ players will report to the team’s complex in Clearwater, Florida, for seven weeks of spring training before the regular season begins in Cincinnati on April 3.
Baseball in Philadelphia sure hasn’t been anything to get excited about in recent years, but there’s certainly some intrigue this season with a crop of young talent set to make a name for themselves.
Gone are the heroes of the 2008 World Championship team, all of which have been shipped off to other teams, are still looking for work, or are out of the game completely. Following the departure of Ryan Howard this offseason, the Phillies stood as one of the youngest teams in the game — something that GM Matt Klentak clearly wanted to address over the offseason.
The Phillies are still in the midst of a rebuild that has been three-plus years in the making. Since 2014, the Phillies have had seasons of 73, 63 and 71 wins. An exciting 22-15 start through the first six weeks of last season quickly fizzled out, though the team did end up with an eight-win improvement from the ’15 campaign.
With the offseason additions of Clay Bucholz, Joaquin Benoit, Pat Neshek, Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders — Klentak was able to accomplish a number of things:
- Add veteran players who will not only make the team more competitive, but who have something to prove and could be flipped at the deadline for more prospects
- Take the pressure off of the team’s younger players
- Give the organization’s prospects more time to develop
In this piece, we’ll delve into each of Klentak’s offseason additions, starting with the pitchers.
Neshek was probably Klentak’s most under-the-radar acquisition, but could prove to be one of his best. For the better part of the last five seasons, Neshek has been one the best relievers in Major League Baseball. Klentak got the 36-year-old righty from the Houston Astros for virtually nothing, as the ‘Stros were looking to dump salary and move some players from their congested bullpen. Since 2012, Neshek has appeared in 266 games, compiling a 2.75 ERA over 229 innings. His best season came in 2014 with the St. Louis Cardinals, when he went 7-2 with a 1.87 ERA, owned a 9.1 K/9 and made the National League All-Star team — his first and only selection.
A sidearm sinkerballer, Neshek also relies on an above-average slider that has proved to be a very effective out pitch. Left-handed hitters have been Neshek’s nemesis for most of his career, which likely eliminates him from being a candidate for closer, but he should provide some stability for Pete Mackanin in late-inning and setup situations, both of which were an issue for the club for much of last season.
A 15-year veteran, the 39-year-old Benoit was signed to a 1-year, $7.5 million deal by Klentak during December’s winter meetings. Since 2010, few relievers have been as dominant as Benoit, who has served as both a closer and setup man. For his career, he has a 3.79 ERA over 712 games. Last season, Benoit split time between the Mariners and Blue Jays, and it was really a tale of two halves for the native Dominican. With the Mariners, Benoit struggled mightily with his control and keeping the ball in the park, limping to a 5.18 ERA in 26 games. Following a trade to Toronto, Benoit was nearly unhittable, posting a 0.38 ERA and striking out 24 in 23.2 innings before sustaining an injury during a benches-clearing brawl in late September that kept him out of the playoffs.
Like Neshek, Benoit is a reliable bullpen and could challenge incumbent closer Jeanmar Gomez for the job during the spring. He still throws in the mid-90s and also features a low 80s changeup that has given hitters fits for most of his career. With a strong first half, expect Benoit to be a popular name come trade deadline time, and one that could possibly net the Phils a high-A or AA prospect.
This one was a bit of a stunner, especially considering the Phillies abundance of young pitching as well as the fact that Jeremy Hellickson had already accepted the Phillies’ $17-million qualifying offer to return to the club for the ’17 season. Bucholz has long been the subject of criticism in Boston and became expendable with the Sox acquiring ace Chris Sale in December. The Phillies sent 2015 10th-round pick Josh Tobias to Boston to get Buchholz and his $13.5 million contract, hoping that he could eat some innings and save the arms of the likes of Jake Thompson, Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin and Aaron Nola, all of which will likely have innings limits.
Everything I’ve read about Buchholz (particularly from BoSox fans) has pointed out his infuriating inconstancies, something his stats clearly back up. For his 10-year career, Buchholz owns an 81-61 record with a 3.96 ERA and has made two All-Star games. However, the 32-year-old seems to have followed up every good season he’s had with an equally bad one the next. His best season came in 2013, when he went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 16 starts before going down with an injury. After a horrendous first half to 2016 in which he pitched to an ERA over 6.00, the right-hander was removed from the Sox rotation in July, but found success in the bullpen and was eventually forced back into rotation for the final months of the year. He was tremendous in his five September starts, going 3-0 with a 3.14 ERA.
As has been the story for his career, it’s hard to say what to expect from the guy in his first season in red pinstripes. He’s always been injury prone and Citizens Bank Park isn’t an ideal park to pitch in coming over from the American League. The trend says we should get a good Clay Bucholz this year, but who really knows? The native Texan is a free-agent after the season and isn’t in the team’s long-term plans. The best-case scenario is that he pitches well for the first half and the team is able to obtain a better prospect than Tobias from a contending team in need of a back-end of the rotation arm.
The first hitter acquired by Klentak over the offseason, Kendrick was brought over from the Dodgers in a deal that sent Darin Ruf and Darnell Sweeny to LA in early November. To say that Kendrick’s 2016 season was disappointing is a bit of an understatement — he posted the lowest batting average (.255), slugging percentage (.366) and OPS (.691) of his career and fell out of favor with Dodgers’ management. By trading him to the Phillies, the Dodgers opened up a spot in their crowded outfield and shed $10 million in salary.
Klentak, who is familiar with Kendrick from his time with the Angels, hopes the veteran’s 2016 was an anomaly, and that he’ll be able to bring some offense to an outfield that was one of the worst in baseball last season. He’s a career .289 hitter, and is known for putting the ball in play — the type of hitter Mackanin coveted. Kendrick, who spent a majority of his career as a second baseman, projects as the team’s starting left fielder with Odubel Herrera manning center and the newly-acquired Michael Saunders in right, though his ability to play a multitude of positions will also help the team.
Like the aforementioned Benoit, 2016 was a story of two halves for Saunders. The native Canadian put up a superb .298/.372/.551 split with 16 home runs and 42 RBI before the All-Star break, earning his first All-Star selection. However, the second half was one that Saunders would probably like to forget, as he batted just .178 with 8 long balls and 21 RBIs and saw his strikeout rate go up as well. Health has always been an issue for the 30-year-old, and the 140 games he played last season was a career high. His career splits of .235/.309/.402 may not seem all that impressive, but six of his eight major league seasons were played in Seattle and its spacious Safeco Field.
Saunders gives Mackanin a decent left-handed bat with some pop, and is an instant upgrade to the right field position. Phillies right fielders combined to for just eight homers and 44 extra-base hits last year. The acquisitions of Kendrick and Saunders will give outfield prospects Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and Dylan Cozens more time to fine tune their craft in AAA ball, but won’t block them if the front office deems any of them ready to make the jump to the bigs. The Phillies gave Saunders a 1-year, $9 million deal with an $11 million club option for 2018, which will likely only be exercised if Saunders can replicate his success from the first half of 2016 and translate it into a full season. At the very least, Saunders and Kendrick will provide some protection to Maikel Franco, who is poised for a breakout year.
At the end of the day, Klentak was able to fill some of the most pressing needs of his team for a relatively low amount of money and zero long-term commitments. Looking to the future, only Odubel Herrera and Michael Saunders are signed through the 2018 season, so there remains a lot of flexibility for the Phillies’ brass to work with when that historic ’18 free agent class hits the market. The club’s payroll projects to be under $100 million for 2017, but they should still see improvement from the 71 victories they had last season, and could even hit the .500 mark.
Written by Tyler DiSalle
Image Source: Getty Images