BALTIMORE >> From his seat in the dugout early Tuesday in Camden Yards, Matt Klentak had a perfect view of his past and his present. From his gut, he finally had a feel for his future, too.
“It was up there, third floor,” the Phillies’ general manager was saying, pointing to the famous warehouse beyond the right-field wall. “That was my office. Between the ‘B’ Warehouse and the ‘C’ Warehouse. I always liked this city ...”
The Phillies’ general manager was reminiscing about his time with the Orioles, when he worked for Andy MacPhail. It was 2008 through 2011, and he was learning it all: Contract negotiations, player development, how to build a roster and, mostly, that in baseball it all can take a while.
Klentak is about to enter the second quarter of his third season guiding the Phillies. He is in the first one where he has a reasonable chance to succeed. The Phils were seven games over .500 as they sat in their clubhouse, waiting out their nightly rain delay, close enough to the top of the NL East for Klentak to enjoy a slight exhale. Finally, what he was trying was working. Farm-grown products were producing. Mid-career players were contributing. Veterans were helping. And even if the Phillies were seven games over .500 in 2016, too, before finishing at 71-91, he was certain it was different this time.
“Yeah, I remember that well,” he said. “We were often winning one-run games and wondering how we were doing it. But it was fun. I think there are a few differences between that team and this team. No. 1, this team’s starting pitching has really been impressive in their ability to throw strikes, in their ability to miss bats and in their ability to induce weak contact. On top of that, there is a lot of bullpen depth on this team. Whether we are winning a close game or losing a close game or it’s a blowout game, we’re able to put a good arm on the mound that’s delivered good results for us.
“And our offense is really starting to click, too. One of the things about the ’16 team was that we were winning a bunch of low-scoring games. We weren’t scoring a lot. This offense is really starting to find their rhythm right now. So I think there are some pretty significant differences between the two seasons.”
The one difference that most matters is that, then, the Phillies didn’t expect to win. But that is $30 million they are laying on Jake Arrieta this season, and $18 million they are paying Carlos Santana. And that would be 48 million reasons why the Phillies are better, and so is the way Klentak is viewed.
While having become much more than a rising, Ivy League-reared, front-office star with a third-floor view of a ballpark, Klentak was not really obligated to produce a contender in his first two seasons in the Phillies’ big office. He was allowed time and denied payroll. He was trying, but not so much that he would need to get his uniform dirty. So when he finally would spring for two thirtysomething free agents from contending programs, he knew he had better not fail. It’s easy to spend. It’s not easy to spend for the right talent at the right time.
Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta have provided the right talent at the right time.
“For sure,” Aaron Altherr said. “You can tell by our record and the way they are playing that both of those guys have been big additions. And just by going out and getting those guys, it showed us they were ready to win and ready to win now.”
Santana started slowly, but he had collected 10 extra base hits in the nine games before Tuesday. Arrieta was 3-1 with a 2.59 ERA and recently has been roughed up only by Hector Neris. Together, they have made the Phillies different, if only by spreading the idea around the clubhouse that it’s not really OK to rebuild into eternity.
“They brought a lot to the table before we even stepped foot into the regular season,” Gabe Kapler said. “Think back to spring training and how Santana would bring Maikey Franco into the cage with him. That was a pretty powerful gesture. Jake led by example from the moment he put on red. And I think our pitchers have followed him. So their leadership characteristics have been strong throughout.”
Klentak surely hoped for the day when he could spend real cash on free agents, trusting his instincts, relying on his baseball education, the one that included that job beyond the Camden Yards fence. Where it leads remains a mystery. But it has taken Klentak and his team to a new level of expectation.
By Tuesday, conspiracy theorists were convinced that Klentak and MacPhail were back in Baltimore on a sneaky recruiting mission, aware that .350-hitting Oriole Manny Machado, a top 10 talent in baseball, will be a free agent at season’s end and that John Middleton won’t be happy until his own check-signing sends him to the disabled list with writer’s cramp.
“I’m not supposed to talk about other players,” Klentak said. With plenty of his own to discuss, the field-level view of what was next for the Phillies was clear either way.
Contact Jack McCaffery @firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery