CLEARWATER, Fla. – Andy MacPhail could not wait to talk about all the new, shiny red apples the Phillies have stockpiled in recent years. All it took was one question about anything to launch his eight-minute promotion that offered extensive details about the "R&D" department, analytics, a second Gulf Coast League team, and the new "series prep" room in the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park, where the players and coaches can go to discuss the upcoming opponent.

The third-year team president really seemed to like the addition of that room a lot.

"It always used to annoy me to no end when a team would come in and we would have to go over their starting pitchers and we'd have to adjourn to the weight room with a piece of paper," MacPhail said. "That's not the way it should be done today. That is an improvement that will be on line for 2018."

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta is the top pitching prize remaining on the free-agent market. (NAM Y. YUH / AP)
Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta is the top pitching prize remaining on the free-agent market. (NAM Y. YUH / AP)

To be sure, MacPhail's list of additions, upgrades, and improvements since he came on board as the team president after the 2015 season was long and necessary.

"We're all focused on [research and development] and analytics and we have built out an analytic department," he said. "Where essentially there was none, we now have nine full-time members. But that's not by any stretch the only thing we've done."

He proceeded to talk about the hiring of international scouts, the addition of a fourth coach for every minor-league affiliate, and the $110 million ownership plans to spend on improvements over the next two years at Citizens Bank Park.

Again, these are all beautiful apples and the Phillies should be proud of how they have ripened. The problem is the people who pay to sit in the seats are not all that enamored with apples and they have some questions here in the first week of spring training.

The fans have listened to new manager Gabe Kapler say, yes, it is possible for the Phillies to contend for a playoff spot in 2018. And they have listened to general manager Matt Klentak second that notion. They have also examined the payroll and noticed that it is near the bottom of major-league baseball, a real turnoff for the paying customers in the largest television market with just one baseball team.

The conundrum is this: If the Phillies think they can contend right now and they have deep pockets, then why haven't they added one of the starting pitchers still on the free-agent market in the middle of February? It has been written here before and it will be again until he signs that Jake Arrieta is the prize the Phillies should pursue.

"It's our job to stay on top of that and see what makes sense," MacPhail said. "That's really the critical element, isn't it? When and where? I don't think anybody questions or should question the commitment ownership has shown with the payrolls it has had. It's our job as management to make sure their resources are employed as intelligently as we can to get us to the postseason as soon as we can. In my judgment, that meant an infrastructure adjustment and young players demonstrating how close they are, and once they demonstrate where you have some holes, then you fill in there."

With the free-agent addition of Carlos Santana at first base, a full season of Rhys Hoskins in left field, and the insertion of J.P. Crawford at shortstop, the Phillies figure to have their highest team on-base percentage since it was .332 in 2010. In turn, they also figure to score more runs.

Everyone knows what the 2018 Phillies need most is a top-notch starting pitcher. And everyone knows that  Arrieta remains a free agent. Yes, he's a Scott Boras client and Boras is the agent least likely to budge on a contract demand. But Arrieta is also the one pitcher the Phillies could add to move the needle on a fan base that has stagnated following six straight seasons without a winning record.

"I think our expectation is that we're going to be flat or a little above last year by the time [the season] is over," MacPhail said when asked about the club's anticipated season-ticket sales for 2018.

Only Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw has had a lower earned run average than Arrieta's 2.67 over the last four seasons, so if you sign a pitcher of that quality it should generate more season-ticket sales. The impression we get here, however, is that the Phillies do not feel they are ready to make that giant leap into the free-agent market.

"Money is not the issue," MacPhail insisted. "It's more about what makes sense for us now. You don't want to do anything impulsive because something may or may not be out there that you anticipate. The other mistake people make is that this isn't the only chance you'll have to improve your team. There are opportunities that are always evolving. We just need to stay on top of those and understand what they are."

Perhaps, but Jake Arrieta is available right now and there's no guarantee that someone as good as he is will be at the trade deadline or next offseason.