PHILADELPHIA - At some point, you are what you are. That's true for individuals, and for rosters, and for organizations as a whole. Over the next three weeks, the most important thing that Matt Klentak and the Phillies' front office can do is decide what they are. They need to look in the mirror, a real mirror, in the harshest lighting possible, that fluorescent, drop-ceiling, DMV-counter kind of light. They need to see themselves raw and true. If a selfie works better, so be it, but use the longest stick possible. No filter, as the kids used to say, before they started saying whatever it is they are saying now.
Over the next three weeks, they will hear a steady drumbeat emanating from their fan base, from their press box, perhaps even from their ownership suite. It will be set to the rhythm of a strain of logic that some will argue is unassailable. This roster has holes, and the Phillies are not going to get to where they want to go unless those holes are filled. They invested a lot of money in this team, and they did not do anything to dissuade the interpretation that said the rebuild was over, that the time to contend was now. If July 31 comes and goes without any meaningful additions to the starting rotation or the bullpen, it will be an admission of failure, another Cody Parkey-sized kick of the can down the interminable road.
It is a strain of logic that they must resist. This past offseason, the Phillies might have talked themselves into believing that their point of actuality had not yet arrived. They might have fooled themselves into thinking that an infusion of payroll spending could paper over barren patches that had been a decade in the making, that, if everything went right, they could become something that the track records of their incumbent players suggested they were not. If Nick Pivetta could finally become the pitcher they envisioned, if Jake Arrieta could return to form, if the ancillary parts of the lineup could be a little less ancillary, the time to contend would be now.
With 90 games gone and 72 left to play, it's difficult to make an argument that this team is only a player or two away. On paper, the Phillies might not seem all that far. If this was the end of the regular season instead of the All-Star break, they would be in the postseason, if you want to call it that. Even if you don't, they'd be one win away from a five-game playoff series. They'd have a rejuvenated ace on the mound. They'd have a couple of middle-of-the-order hitters who look like they are heating up and a third who has been hot all season. From there, who knows?
It's a valid line of reasoning, but it does nothing to address the critical question that always defines this time of year. What is the future cost that the present is worth?
That's not a pleasant question for anybody to consider. Not the fan base, not the owner, and certainly not a manager and general manager who are fast approaching the point where people begin to loudly call for their jobs. But it is the only question that matters. And to suggest that it doesn't is to ignore the lessons of the recent past.
The No. 1 priority of Klentak and his front office continues to be the rebuilding of an organization that was decimated by a decade of ineptitude. For those who are resistant to that notion, here's an activity the next time the Braves are on television. Each time the camera focuses in on a player, think about the year that he joined the organization. Ronald Acuna? 2014. Ozzie Albies? 2013. Freddie Freeman? 2007. Julio Teheran? 2007. Mike Soroka? 2015. Max Fried? 2014.
Their top three hitters, and their top three pitchers in terms of Wins Above Replacement - all arrived before Klentak was hired by the Phillies in October 2015. Several others were acquired with assets that the Braves originally drafted long before 2015. The closer, Luke Jackson? Acquired for a guy the Braves acquired for Jason Heyward. The shortstop, Dansby Swanson, and center fielder, Ender Inciarte? Both acquired for another guy the Braves acquired for Heyward.
From 2007 to 2010, the Braves drafted six players who have at least eight career Wins Above Replacement: Heyward, Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, Mike Minor, and Evan Gattis. Several of those players ended up being traded for others who, along with Freeman, continue to contribute today.
From 2005 to 2015, the Phillies drafted and developed one such player: Aaron Nola. Rhys Hoskins should get there soon. Scott Kingery might not be far behind. But the fact remains, there is an exponential impact with a drought such as the one that plagued the Phillies during the Pat Gillick and Ruben Amaro Jr. eras. When a franchise hits on a draft pick, it can spend resources elsewhere. The more picks it hits, the more flexibility it has to use the other avenues available to it to diversify its portfolio of talent, and the more diversification a portfolio features, the more likely it is to pay future dividends. The current Braves are the product of a never-ending cycle of drafting, developing, and moving on to the future.
It's a frustrating reality, no doubt. It will be years before we know whether the Phillies are back on the path toward sustainability. Oftentimes, a general manager doesn't get a long enough leash to find out for himself. That can make it tempting to discount one's projections of future value. But the simple truth is this: The Phillies have yet to show us that they are good enough in the present to warrant its prioritization.
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