BETHLEHEM, Pa. — There is less than a month until pitchers and catchers report in Florida and Arizona, and the National League is divided. There are a handful of teams — Dodgers, Nationals, Cubs, Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Rockies and Giants — with plans to contend for five postseason spots. There are many others that will not win in 2018. That is by design.
The middle class has shrunk; teams have decided there is less incentive to improve if the best outcome is a win total in the mid-to-high 70s.
The Phillies, who have won the fewest games in the NL since the start of the 2012 season, occupy a space somewhere between contending and tanking. There are strong odds they will win more than the 66 games they did a season ago. But, to contend, it would require a 20-win improvement. It is not impossible, but it is highly improbable.
That is why, as the slowest free-agent market in recent memory continues to drag, the Phillies remain an interesting player. They have money to spend. They have an obvious need in the rotation. There are some decent pitchers still unsigned.
But the Phillies are not ready to meet the current prices — and they might not meet them at all.
"We're driven to pursue any opportunity we can to get better," Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said Thursday at a banquet for triple-A Lehigh Valley. "The balance that we strike is: What is the expense to get better? And I don't mean that in a financial way. Who are we taking at-bats away from in order to get better? Who is going to lose out on important innings on the mound at the expense of us getting better? That is kind of the complicating factor more than the dollars."
So the current decisions, Klentak insisted, are baseball ones. Not financial ones. Klentak said he has engaged some current free agents and offered terms with which the club would be comfortable. The stare-down continues.
"If the market falls," Klentak said, "we would like to be active."
It could be a peek into how the front office views the team's potential in 2018. No one has used the word contend because it would too brash after a 66-win season. But the Phillies have a young roster, one that is harder to project and could surprise. If the front office saw one or two acquisitions that could propel the 2018 team to contention, it could be more inclined to be active before the market prices fall.
Maybe team officials have decided that status as a middle-class National League citizen in 2018 is sufficient.
"It's really more of baseball decisions at this point," Klentak said. "We're just wanting to make sure we properly devote the development time to players that need it, to make sure we are building a team that wins and sustains its winning for a long time."
A scan of the league reveals at least four teams either embarking on or still tolerating a rebuild: the Braves, Marlins, Reds and Padres. Pittsburgh maintains it can contend in 2018 but just traded its best pitcher and best hitter. The Mets won 70 games in 2017 and will return with a similar roster. The Brewers were a surprise in 2017 but could be a notch below contender in 2018.
The Phillies, it should be noted, have spent more than most clubs this winter. They signed three free agents for a total of $94.25 million. The $60 million to Carlos Santana is still the largest guaranteed sum signed this winter. But the club's payroll, without major additions, will rank in the bottom third of baseball because it is populated by young players making at or near the major-league minimum salary.
That has not tempted Klentak to spend more now.
"We would like to add a starter that we think makes us better," Klentak said. "If it doesn't work out, we feel like the group we have now is capable and likely to take a step forward next year."