Phillies president Andy MacPhail and his staff met with the team's owners in late June for a scheduled quarterly briefing. The team had lost 12 of its last 13 games and was on pace for a record 110 losses. The meeting, MacPhail feared, would be ugly.
But, he said, it wasn't.
"No panic," MacPhail said. "They get it. Our problems weren't fatal. They've been making the right investments over time, and they will be rewarded. I can't tell you when or the date that it's all going to click in. Nobody can. But they are invested in the program. And if they didn't take us out and shoot us after that meeting, it's not likely to happen anytime soon."
That program — the team's rebuilding process — seemed to reach a turning point in the season's final weeks as a young lineup emerged. The heaviest lifting and the darkest days are over.
But reaching the turning point will not lead immediately to contention. Wins and losses will carry more weight in 2018, but the team, MacPhail said, still expects "a relatively low payroll." The Phillies will instead apply financial resources to other areas such as stadium upgrades, a sports science staff, and boosts to their analytics department. So, there will be a new playing surface and public address system next season at Citizens Bank Park.
A true turning point will come once the Phillies are willing — they are already able — to compete in free agency.
"We've already talked to ownership about it and explained to them why [the payroll will be low in 2018]," MacPhail said. "They did not react extraordinarily well in the beginning. Ultimately, they're OK with it with one proviso: that if an opportunity presents itself, we do not exclude it. They understand the program."
The Phillies added $63.7 million last winter in trades and free-agent signings. A similar figure can be expected this year. Their only contract for 2018 belongs to Odubel Herrera, who will make just $3 million. Five players are arbitration-eligible, while the rest will make at or near the league minimum. The Phillies can add salaries this winter and still have a "relatively low payroll."
They might not sign a high-ticketed arm this winter, but the Phillies will need to acquire pitching. Signing a veteran starter to a long-term deal is "not my favorite place to be," MacPhail said. The team has one certainty — Aaron Nola — for next year's rotation, and finding two quality starters, MacPhail said, is like "looking for a unicorn."
The best way to bolster that rotation, and find that unicorn, will likely be through a trade. The Phillies have an influx of outfield prospects, and a package built around them could present a solution. MacPhail mentioned the possibility of teams' trying to shed salary this winter in preparation for next year's big free-agent class. The Phillies' low payroll allows them the luxury to add a pitcher whom someone needs to unload and still make a splash next winter, which they almost certainly will.
"If the question is: Is it is possible that Matt [Klentak, general manager] uses those assets in the minor leagues to augment our major-league club in '18, then I think the answer to that question is definitely we'd consider it," MacPhail said. "The minor leagues are there to populate your major-league club, and it can happen a couple different ways. They can come up and play, or you can turn them in for what is more-known assets."