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Strong foundation has Phillies pointed up

MLB.com @HalBodley

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Mike Schmidt has lived through the good times and the bad with the Phillies. He was in uniform when a young team won three consecutive division titles in the 1970s, and in 1980 when they celebrated a World Series title for the first time. Schmidt played in the '83 Series loss to the Orioles.

And during the Hall of Famer's 18 seasons, he was around when the Phillies were losing a ton of games, like 97 in 1972 or 91 in '73 or 82 the following summer; a combined 191 his final two years, 1988-89.

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Mike Schmidt has lived through the good times and the bad with the Phillies. He was in uniform when a young team won three consecutive division titles in the 1970s, and in 1980 when they celebrated a World Series title for the first time. Schmidt played in the '83 Series loss to the Orioles.

And during the Hall of Famer's 18 seasons, he was around when the Phillies were losing a ton of games, like 97 in 1972 or 91 in '73 or 82 the following summer; a combined 191 his final two years, 1988-89.

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By my count, Schmidt was with the Phils for 1,398 of the franchise's record 10,650 losses. The team has finished last 33 times. Michael Jack has seen this team torn down and rebuilt more times than he can remember, so there's really no one better to ask of what the current construction project reminds him.

"The Kansas City Royals four years ago," Schmidt said the other day without hesitation. "And I think we're closer to the World Series than the Royals were then."

Kansas City, building from within with young players, lost 90 games in 2012 and, of course, rose to beat the New York Mets last year to win its first World Series championship in 30 years.

"Just say I'm very impressed with the young talent here," Schmidt, a Spring Training instructor, added after a workout on a cold, windy day at Bright House Field. "There's a lot of energy."

Ask baseball lifer Pete Mackanin what his youthful band of virtually unknown players reminds him of, and the manager chews on the question for only a second or two.

"Right away, I think about the Montreal Expos with a lot of young guys when Warren Cromartie, Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine and Gary Carter came up," he said. "I was part of that mix [1975-77]. Those guys did a little better than I did over the long run.

Video: Mackanin addresses the entire team at Spring Training

"It reminds me, in that respect, we've got a lot of guys who're not necessarily on the Major League team, but on the verge, knocking on the door. I consider Freddy Galvis, Maikel Franco and Cesar Hernandez prospects as well. Those guys did well enough last year for me to expect much more from them this year."

Mackanin, 64, took over on an interim basis when Ryne Sandberg resigned on June 26, and he was given the job permanently after the season, his first full-time managerial job. He received enormous praise for his handling of and communication with the young roster.

Once prompted, Mackanin was on a roll, oozing superlatives about the players who are rebuilding the Phillies' future. Once again.

"I think [center fielder] Odubel Herrera has a chance to be a batting champion," the manager gushed. "I don't know about this year, but he's got a real good idea at the plate. He's shown adjustments. We need Galvis and Cesar to adjust and Maikel to get 500 at-bats. We have a bunch of prospects -- good young guys who have a chance to make a name for themselves."

Herrera batted .297 in 147 games last year, while Franco hit .280 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs.

Right-hander Aaron Nola, who was 6-2 with a 3.59 ERA in 13 starts, is the top pitching prospect, and shortstop J.P. Crawford, one of baseball's best prospects, is considered a big piece in the club's future.

I first arrived in Clearwater to cover the Phils in 1958. For the first four years, they lost 377 games, including 107 in '61. And they only played 154 games in those seasons, all last-place finishes.

When I look back over the years, I can never remember so many changes -- from top to bottom -- within the organization, as are taking place now.

To say 2016 is a new beginning is an understatement.

Longtime respected executive Andy MacPhail is now the club president, 35-year-old Matt Klentak is vice president/general manager and Mackanin is the new field general. Klentak is the youngest GM in Phillies history. There's an entirely new analytics department.

Video: Phillies answer rapid fire questions

Change was obviously necessary. It's been eight years since the Phils, under manager Charlie Manuel, won the World Series; seven years since they lost the Series to the Yankees in 2009. Their run of five straight National League East titles ended in 2012. They finished last the previous two seasons and lost 99 games in 2015, their third straight losing season.

An upbeat Klentak has been talking this spring about building a firm foundation, but is quick to add "a lot of the pieces are already here."

The Phillies waited too long to rebuild and were saddled with expensive long-term contracts awarded to players who helped win those five consecutive division titles, but whose skills were on the downside.

Jimmy Rollins is gone. So is Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, et al. Only 36-year-old former NL MVP Award winner Ryan Howard and 37-year-old catcher Carlos Ruiz remain from the team that helped sell out Citizens Bank Park all those great years.

Most preseason forecasters are picking the Phils to finish last again, and they're near the bottom among the 30 Major League teams in early power rankings.

Because they had the Majors' worst record in 2015, the Phillies own the overall first pick in the Draft for the first time since 1998, when they selected Pat Burrell. This is an enormously valuable asset to a rebuilding team.

2016 Draft order

"These young guys are pretty good and have a lot to prove," said Mackanin. "I hope they make very difficult decisions for us on when to bring them up here. A lot of the guys -- especially some of the pitchers -- have to be thinking they have to show improvement this year or one of these young guys will take their jobs.

"If that's pressure, so be it. That's what this game is all about. If you can't handle pressure, how do you expect to win the game in the ninth inning -- or the last game of the World Series?"

As the workout continued this day at Bright House Field, the overriding thought was that the painful teardown of the Phillies is complete. And the words of Schmidt comparing the rebuilding to the journey that the Royals followed were encouraging.

Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter.

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