Phillies allowing themselves a bit of optimism

Philadelphia Phillies manager Gabe Kapler watches pitchers in the bullpen at baseball spring training, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, in Clearwater, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) After six straight seasons without a winning record, the Philadelphia Phillies see light at the end of the tunnel.

Whether it’s the cautious optimism of the general manager or a bit of bravado from a young player, there’s a sense the worst of Philadelphia’s rebuilding process may be over.

”This is my third spring training here. This is the first time, for me, where if you close your eyes and think about it, it’s no longer a pipe dream,” GM Matt Klentak said Thursday. ”The young players have arrived. We’ve added some veterans to that group, and you can now close your eyes and imagine a possibility where things really start to break right.”

Philadelphia hasn’t finished above .500 since winning 102 games in 2011. Last year, the Phillies were 29-58 at the All-Star break, but they were better in the second half as players like Rhys Hoskins offered a glimpse of a potentially brighter future. The Phillies will have a tough time erasing their 31-game gap behind NL East champion Washington, but establishing themselves as the division’s second-best team seems a realistic goal.

Or they could think big.

”We have the talent to win the World Series in here,” shortstop J.P. Crawford said. ”I think we all believe that, so I’m excited to see where the season takes us.”

Crawford made his debut in September and hit just .214, but when he reached the majors, it was another chance for fans in Philadelphia to watch a top prospect in action instead of waiting for him to arrive. Hoskins made an even bigger impact, hitting 18 home runs in 50 games.

”He understands that he’s not a finished product by any stretch. He also is very well aware of what he accomplished,” said Gabe Kapler, Philadelphia’s new manager . ”He dominated for two months at the major league level – absolute, utter domination. His ability to come back to camp, humble and hungry, is incredibly impressive.”

With Hoskins, Nick Williams and Odubel Herrera, the Phillies have some young outfielders they can try to build around, and this offseason, Philadelphia signed slugging first baseman Carlos Santana to a $60 million, three-year contract . That move suggested the Phillies saw enough potential in their younger players that it was worth adding a pricy veteran to the mix in an effort to boost the win total.

Klentak spoke for around 25 minutes at spring training Thursday, and he made it clear the Phillies aren’t about to abandon their patient approach to building the roster, but that doesn’t preclude major moves in certain circumstances.

”What I’ve been charged with by our owners is to look at every opportunity,” Klentak said. ”If there’s something that makes sense for the short term, and something that makes sense for the long term, then we’re going to pursue that, and that’s exactly the way we ended up with Santana.”

The Phillies did announce a minor move Thursday, adding right-hander Drew Hutchison on a minor league contract with an invite to major league spring training. It’s possible Philadelphia could still upgrade its starting rotation, which got a strong season from Aaron Nola last year but still has plenty of question marks. Klentak says even if the Phillies don’t add a marquee starter, he’s hoping the team can take other steps toward allowing fewer runs. He expects his team to carry eight relievers, and an improved bullpen could take some pressure off the starters.

What makes 2018 feel like an opportunity for the Phillies is the fact that the NL East had only one team with a winning record last year. Miami finished second and promptly traded Giancarlo Stanton, entering a rebuilding process similar to the one Philadelphia is now several years into. The Phillies may still have a long way to go before becoming an elite team, but last season’s wild cards in the National League went to Arizona and Colorado – teams that were well under .500 the previous year.

Milwaukee jumped from 73 wins to 86 and nearly made the playoffs. Over in the AL, Minnesota did snag a wild card after losing 103 games in 2016.

”There’s no reason why we can’t compete,” Klentak said. ”As long as we have examples like last year’s Twins and Brewers, and there have been other examples of that in prior years where young teams do break out, perhaps before the public was expecting. As long as there’s examples of that, then we should set that as our goal as well.”

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