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The question surrounding the Philadelphia Phillies is how much of an improvement will they make in 2017 as their rebuilding process under general manager Matt Klentak continues.
And if Klentak's moves in the offseason are any indication, the Phillies plan on competing a bit more when the season kicks off next week in Cincinnati.
Klentak, hired at the end of 2015 to lead the Phillies into a rebuilding stage, has taken the long view for the organization overall but elected to fill holes with veterans this offseason instead of giving immediate playing time to younger players.
Still, the plan is the same, to keep moving forward while developing younger talent.
"I have been very pleased and encouraged in my year and a half with the Phillies," Klentak told MLB.com last week. "From our ownership group, to our president, to me, to our baseball operations group, to (manager) Pete Mackanin and his staff, everybody is on board with that. To me, that's the sign of a healthy organization, when there's continuity in the direction we're trying to head. That's the main reason why I'm so bullish on our future."
The future looks bright, but what about the present?
The Phillies, after owning the worst record in baseball in 2015, had an eight-win improvement in 2016, finishing the year 71-91. Slow and steady is the plan.
Klentak decided to surround young slugger Maikel Franco's middle-of-the-order bat with some veteran help. The Phillies signed Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders in the offseason and will start the season with the two manning corner outfield spots, positions where the Phillies struggled mightily to find offense in 2016. The two figure to bat second and fifth, respectively, in the Phillies' Opening Day batting order, providing support to center fielder Odubel Herrera an All-Star last season and the third baseman, Franco.
The Phillies are also counting on the steady improvement of their leadoff man, second baseman Cesar Hernandez, who led the team with a .294 batting average and .371 on-base percentage last year. If he can improve his base running ability he was caught stealing 13 times in 30 attempts last year the Phillies will have a bona fide leadoff hitter capable of scoring close to 100 runs.
While Philadelphia's offense was in the bottom half of the league in 2016, its starting pitching staff was in the middle of the pack and is largely unchanged in 2017. The addition of Clay Buchholz despite his spring training struggles adds veteran depth and inning-eating abilities to a staff with young arms.
Jeremy Hellickson, who agreed to a $17.2 million qualifying offer, will again lead the staff and start Opening Day in Cincinnati and will again see his name in trade talks as the trading deadline approaches. Continued improvements from Vince Velasquez, 24, and Jerad Eickhoff, 26, and a bounce-back year from Aaron Nola, 23, will put go a long way. Nola, the seventh overall pick in 2014, had his season cut short with UCL and flexor tendon injuries to his (right) throwing arm.
Where Klentak upgraded best, it seems, is in the bullpen. Phillies relievers ranked 28th in ERA last year, so Klentak added veterans Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek to the fray.
"You can see it in their eyes," Mackanin, the manager, told reporters in Clearwater at the beginning of spring training. "They feel like they're going to be a better team this year."
How much better remains to be seen.
"I believe if we play good baseball, and we play around .500 to get started ... I'd love to start off quick," Mackanin told reporters. "I think as we do that, and prove to ourselves that we're an improved team, I think there's no telling what can happen down the stretch."