Matt Klentak said plenty of promising things during his introductory press conference on Monday after being named as the new GM of the Philadelphia Phillies. He emphasized transparency, resourcefulness (including the use of analytics), and most importantly a desire to win.
“I wouldn’t have left Mike Trout in his prime if I didn’t believe we could win here,” Klentak jokingly commented during the press conference.
But Klentak doesn’t have a Trout-caliber player currently on the Phillies roster. Perhaps Maikel Franco blossoms into a hitter that becomes somewhat as productive as Trout, but even that is probably setting the bar a little too high.
The Phillies’ roster is getting younger, and it will continue to do so in 2016 as players such as top prospect shortstop J.P. Crawford and a few others set to join the big club at some point next season.
While the roster has undergone a major overhaul in the past year, there are still a couple of players left from the old regime and the 2008 World Series, including one ‘Big Piece’ of that championship team: Ryan Howard, who will go down as the best first baseman in Phillies history.
Despite his torrid production, especially from the period of 2006 through 2011, Howard is now 35 years old (the same age as Klentak strangely enough) and is set to make another whopping $25 million in 2016.
Howard has not been the same player since rupturing his Achilles back in 2011. It took a couple of years for him to fully heal, and by then age was becoming an issue. Despite leading the team in the power categories once again, he is coming off his lowest home run and RBI totals for a season in which he recorded at least 400 at-bats.
Father time and nagging leg issues have inevitably caught up to Howard and the result is a player that is actually costing the Phillies ball games, as evidenced by his -1.4 WAR rating.
Attentive Phillies fans don’t need sabermetrics to tell them that Howard is a shell of the former 40-plus home run player from last decade. The eye test works just as well. It can be seen when he swings at balls in the dirt. It can be seen when he squares up a ball and it doesn’t go as far as it once did.
The deterioration in his overall play is also painfully obvious in the field and on the base paths. Howard was never a Gold Glove candidate or a threat on the bases, but he has noticeably slowed, and his defensive shortcomings seem to get worse each season now.
Alongside Klentak during the press conference was the new voice and face of Phillies ownership, John Middleton. Over the last few months, Phillies fans have begun getting to know Middleton quite well.
Middleton sat in on the press conferences when Andy MacPhail was hired as club president, when Ryne Sandberg resigned as manager, and when Ruben Amaro Jr. was fired as the general manager. Last Monday, we saw him again welcoming in a new era of Phillies baseball in the form of the new baby-faced GM Klentak.
One thing that we have come to learn about Middleton is that he will tell it like it is. During Monday’s press conference, he discussed one of the past mistakes that put this organization in its current predicament.
“One of the criticisms the fans have leveled on the Phillies, and I think it’s justifiable, is that we didn’t recognize early enough and act upon that recognition that the window had closed and we needed to move on.” Middleton said, per Rich Hofmann at The Philly Voice. “That we were trying to extend guys that were older and trying to create a bridge and we needed to realize that the bridge didn’t exist and we needed to move on.”
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This was certainly criticism of Amaro’s handling of older players, a direct reference to those such as Chase Utley and Howard, each of whom was given a new, lucrative contract after the age of 30.
Amaro seemingly cemented these signings without long-term thinking, or without doing proper homework. If he had, then maybe he would’ve realized that most players’ skills inevitably deteriorate after the age of 30, especially in baseball’s post-PED era.
But this was also the work of a man who had spent his entire baseball career with the Phillies. He was a ball boy, a player, and a main cog in their front office. Amaro undoubtedly had emotional ties to the organization and its fans, which probably played into him keeping two of the franchise’s most beloved players despite their age.
Klentak has no emotional ties to the Phillies organization. He was brought in by Andy MacPhail to do one thing. Win.
Reading between the lines during his press conference, Klentak expressed similar feelings as Middleton, as well as a willingness to make “tough decisions” for the betterment of the team.
With that in mind, it’s safe to assume that Howard and Utley most likely would not have been offered the contracts given by Amaro if Klentak were the man pulling the strings.
Utley is gone, traded away to Los Angeles, where he helped old buddy Jimmy Rollins and the Dodgers reach the NLCS. Utley plans to play again next season, though where he will play is uncertain.
Howard’s future is still very much up in the air. Will he return to play in his 12th season with the Phillies, or will he need to find a new home in 2016? The answer will come sometime over the next few months.
Klentak’s demeanor, hunger for change, and lack of sentimental attachment might signal that a tough decision regarding Howard could be coming. In the meantime, The Big Piece remains the primary first baseman of the Phillies. Come spring training, that may no longer be the case.