PHILADELPHIA >> The Phillies entered August in first place, all alone, ahead of the Braves and Nationals, and well ahead of a long-ago rebuilding schedule. Because of Matt Klentak, the rest will be up to them.
Criticized with cause through his first two seasons as general manager for refusing to add anyone of big-league accomplishment with any intent other than a trade-deadline flip, Klentak has spent the last eight months doing his job with championship intent. While carrying on at something less than a George Steinbrenner level, he has done his most important job. He has acted like the general manager should act in baseball’s No. 1 monopoly market.
There may be a small waiver-period tremor to come. If the Phillies are close to a first-place finish, there could even be a tidy September trade for an accomplished pitcher, even one who would not be eligible for the postseason. But the crescendo of trade-deadline-week activity Klentak just provided will have to be enough, at least this year.
Consider the trail of responsible additions the general manager has made since last December. Consider how he stopped trading only for promises, but moved toward John Middleton’s promise of eternal contention. Consider these initiatives:
Re-signing 2017 All-Star Pat Neshek for two years and $16 million. The first time Klentak added Neshek, it was only to use him as an in-season trade lure. The second time would be central to a pointed plan to buffer a gifted but young rotation with enough accomplished relievers to allow the bullpen door to begin swinging before the sixth inning without squeaking.
Neshek, 37, began the season injured. But in 11 (brief) appearances since his return, he has not allowed an earned run.
Adding Tommy Hunter for two years and $18 million. The 11th-year veteran would be 31 and had bounced around the American League to a career ERA of 4.13. But he was respected as a right-hander who could get left-handers out, and he has settled after a rickety start to give the Phillies some late-game value.
Signing Carlos Santana for three years and $60 million. The Phils are entitled to more than the .211 batting average he has supplied. But Santana has been a defensive value and has walked 81 times. His 16 home runs in 106 games projects to a 24-to-25 home-run pace. Just as important, at age 32, he has shown some Chase Utley-like, on-field alertness and leadership, and has been a calming agent on what had been a young team.
Committing to over $75 million over three years for Jake Arrieta. A former Cy Young winner with no-hit-level stuff, the 32-year-old right-hander would be a critical addition to a developing staff. Though a hair inconsistent, Arrieta’s value is in the confidence he projects on the mound and in the way he conducts himself in the room, mingling with young players and mentoring young pitchers. He has also mixed in some amazing performances; his seven-inning, seven-strikeout, no-walk message Tuesday in Fenway Park stopped a four-game losing streak and preserved the Phils’ first-place status at a juncture where, in recent seasons, collapse could have been expected.
Trading minor-league slop garbage for the right to rent free-agent-to-be Asdrubal Cabrera for two months. In order to compete for championships in 2018, teams need power at every position. While surprisingly effective a defender for someone who had never played the position, Scott Kingery was not supplying enough of that at shortstop. Cabrera, 32, a two-time All-Star, had 18 home runs for the Mets and projects as a major lineup upgrade for any September game in teeny Citizens Bank Park.
Trading some future promise for 30-year-old, two-time All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos, also a pending free agent. Though disabled with a hamstring issue, Ramos, who had 14 home runs in 78 games for the Rays, will complete a power-threat-at-every-position lineup once healthy.
Trading a middling minor league pitcher for 30-year-old left-handed rental reliever Aaron Loup. Had that been Klentak’s only trade-deadline move, he would have been ridiculed as Ed Wade 2.0. But as a supplement to Cabrera and Ramos, and for a manager who enjoys later-game mixes and matches, Loup completes a bullpen built for a pennant race.
Since leaving Clearwater, Gabe Kapler had said the Phillies would contend. He says many things. Klentak, though, only put his finger in one ear, not both. With his mind at least half open, he made about as public a promise as possible that, were Kapler and the Phils to prove capable of contention through July, he would act as a responsible general manager. How responsible was debatable. Klentak was not willing to out-bid the Dodgers for developing Hall of Fame shortstop Manny Machado. But he was responsible enough.
Beginning Thursday night with a 7:05 visit from the Marlins, the Phillies will have two full months to win a division championship. Even one of the two available wild-card playoff spots would be a worthwhile prize. With Ramos and Cabrera, they will have clout at every position, with even Cesar Hernandez likely to finish with double-figure home runs. With Arrieta backing up All-Star Aaron Nola, there is reasonable support for an otherwise young rotation. Neshek, Hunter and Loup will keep games close enough for Rookie of the Year candidate Seranthony Dominguez to save.
None of that guarantees the Phils will be in a pennant race.
All of it guarantees that Matt Klentak cannot be blamed if they’re not.
Contact Jack McCaffery @email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery