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Patient Phils could be on cusp of greatness

Breakout season would go long way to woo Harper, Machado in '19
MLB.com @castrovince

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Phillies made some major investments this winter, and not just in the bluetooth speakers that have made their clubhouse, their morning workouts and even the empty hallways of Spectrum Field consistent sources of musical accompaniment at the behest of rookie skipper Gabe Kapler. They signed Carlos Santana to a three-year, $60 million contract that was a behemoth by the standards of a cost-conscious industry, and they committed nearly $35 million over two years to Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek for the bullpen.

But if they were to dole out some more dollars for a dependable veteran starter like Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb, well, that would be music to the ears of those who think the Phillies are a lot closer to legit contention than people give them credit for.

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Phillies made some major investments this winter, and not just in the bluetooth speakers that have made their clubhouse, their morning workouts and even the empty hallways of Spectrum Field consistent sources of musical accompaniment at the behest of rookie skipper Gabe Kapler. They signed Carlos Santana to a three-year, $60 million contract that was a behemoth by the standards of a cost-conscious industry, and they committed nearly $35 million over two years to Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek for the bullpen.

But if they were to dole out some more dollars for a dependable veteran starter like Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb, well, that would be music to the ears of those who think the Phillies are a lot closer to legit contention than people give them credit for.

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And maybe, eventually, to the ears of Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.

More on those guys in a sec, but first, what are we to make of this 2018 Phillies club, as currently constructed?

"It's a real similar situation to Houston in '15, when I got there," Neshek said. "Last year, it was kind of messy [96 losses], but I feel like we're way ahead of where Houston was then. I like our core, and I know they have the money to add if we start winning. I think it's an up-and-coming team that's going to be pretty good. And the NL East isn't that great this year."

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Evaluators from other clubs put the Phillies on the list of teams likely to add a starter between now and Opening Day. But in a market that has finally achieved some movement in recent days, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak's public comments on the matter indicate we shouldn't expect anything earth-shattering, even as enticing as a depressed price tag for Arrieta might be.

"We're pretty disciplined," Klentak told reporters last week. "We've gone through this rebuild, we've acknowledged that it was going to be painful for a few years. It has been. We're not going to do anything to compromise the future of that. We're going to continue to do this right. We're competitive as anybody else is, but we're not going to radically change our valuation on a potential acquisition based on emotion."

This tact is in line with the typical rebuild timetable.

Though the Phillies took a frustrating step back in the standings last year, their overall outlook is still that of a club on the rise and, potentially, on the cusp. The addition of Santana and a full season of Rhys Hoskins and J.P. Crawford provides tremendous OBP ability for what could be a breakout offense. The bullpen looks deep (the Phillies might even go with as many as nine relievers at times this year), and Aaron Nola (119 ERA+ in 168 innings last year) is one of the more exciting young arms in the game. Certainly, there's an argument for the Phillies seeing what they have before they sign off on another sizable contract.

"I think they're waiting to see signs of life," Neshek said, "then they're going to help us."

Video: Kapler on playing a bold, fearless style of baseball

What is atypical, however, is what's looming ahead -- a once-in-a-generation free-agent class fronted by Harper and Machado. It's no secret the Phillies have aligned their payroll picture around the idea of landing one (both?) of those franchise-changers.

"I think they could go sign two really ridiculous guys if they wanted to," Neshek said with a smile.

But while money does, indeed, talk louder than the aforementioned speakers, neither Harper nor Machado is going to sign up for an iffy standings situation. The Dodgers are going to be in the market for Harper, and the Yankees for Machado. The Cubs and Red Sox could be involved, too. These are big-market ballclubs that double as clear contenders now, in the recent past and, in all likelihood, in 2019 and beyond.

Video: Rhys Hoskins reflects on 2017, looks forward to 2018

So it is imperative that the Phillies take a big step forward this year. That is the thought that inspired Klentak and Co. to bid boldly on Santana and the 'pen, surprising some in the industry with their aggressiveness. But with those contracts and the Odubel Herrera extension literally the only monetary commitments on the books in the coming years on a club replete with revenue streams, why stop there?

The Phils' rotation picture is iffy, to say the least, and the worry is that it undercuts the sweeter sounds emanating from the rest of the roster. This team can't afford another "messy" mark.

You see Nola's image on billboards near the Carpenter Complex for good reason. His high-strikeout/low-walk/high-ground-ball profile makes him a rising star. Beyond Nola, though, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Jerad Eickhoff, Zach Eflin and Ben Lively combined for a 5.24 ERA in 91 starts last season. While the Phillies have to let some of those guys take their lumps and figure things out at the big league level, they need somebody to lend a dose of dependability and, perhaps, a between-starts example of how to prepare.

"I like our starting staff," said Nola, "but you can always benefit from a veteran."

Video: Nola thinks Phillies can contend in 2018

For the Phillies, the benefit of at least contending for a Wild Card spot in 2018 would extend beyond the obvious enthusiasm it would engender from the Philly faithful. It would make the pitch to Harper and/or Machado that much more inviting.

Arrieta, Lynn and Cobb are all still sitting there, and they are all capable of taking this rotation -- and, ergo, this team -- to another level. Serenade one of them, and the music might reach the ears of next year's prominent free-agent pair.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcasts and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Philadelphia Phillies