The Phillies are 70-89 after Thursday night's 5-2 loss to the Braves, meaning they won at least seven more games than last season with three to play. Klentak cited the team's improved record, but he also mentioned the performances of some of its younger talents like Cesar Hernandez, Cameron Rupp, Odubel Herrera, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez and Hector Neris.
"I'm missing plenty of them," Klentak said. "I'm not trying to single anybody out. I think that all suggests very positive things for the future. On top of that, and this has been well documented, but just the performance of the Minor League system. Collectively, with the winning percentage, but also the performance of individual prospects, the accolades that those players have received, it would be hard not to look at this season as a real positive step in the right direction."
Klentak believes the club's starting pitching is perhaps its best success story. Phillies starters ranked 29th last season with a 5.23 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP. This year, they rank 19th with a 4.45 ERA and ninth with a 1.28 WHIP. They might have been better, if not for season-ending injuries to Aaron Nola (inflammation in right elbow) and Zach Eflin (patellar tendinopathy in both knees) and shutting down Velasquez last month because of his workload.
The Phillies said they are hopeful Nola and Eflin will be healthy by Spring Training, although Nola just started throwing this week in Clearwater, Fla., and Eflin is scheduled to have his second knee surgery in the coming days. It is too early to definitively say, particularly with Nola, if they will be ready or not.
"Our starters, for the most part, veteran starters and young starters alike, have kept us in the game," Klentak said. "That was a major focus of our offseason, trying to be more competitive on the mound, and I think we've accomplished that. It doesn't mean by itself that it's going to be that way next year. We need to continue to reinforce that, but I think that's one of the notable improvements on this club this year."
Starting pitching will continue to be a priority for the Phillies, despite manager Pete Mackanin's pleas for a big bat in next season's lineup. It seems likely they will try to find a way to replace right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, who will become a free agent following the season.
"I don't think we will ever have the luxury of ignoring starting pitching," Klentak said. "If you can dictate the pace of the game on the mound, you always have a chance to win. We're never going to ignore that. If there is an opportunity to add a veteran, that's likely something we're going to explore. But we're not going to hold ourselves to that standard. If the opportunity doesn't present itself, we'll make the adjustments the other way."
So should the Phillies be expected to win at least seven more games in 2017 than in '16? Not necessarily. Phillies president Andy MacPhail said last weekend in New York that "progress doesn't need to be linear. If you look at teams that went through a real rebuilding program, whether it's Baltimore, Pittsburgh or the Cubs, they didn't stair-step their way to the postseason. They lay flat in the 60s and maybe creep up to the 70s, but then boom -- it's 90s."
Based on the fact the Phillies do not sound ready to go crazy in the offseason by signing a couple of free-agent hitters -- they want to continue to give their younger players opportunities to develop -- the Phillies will be hard-pressed to go boom next season. But Klentak likes the progress he has seen to date. He is happy MacPhail signed him up for the job.