Commentary

Considering patience with Phillies’ rebuild

KlentakThe Phillies haven’t made much noise during the Winter Meetings, which isn’t surprising, since they weren’t anticipated to make much noise in Nashville. But General Manager Matt Klentak has been doing the chat circuit, fielding questions from Phillies’ beat writers and national anchors, among others.

During his Q&A sessions Klentak – who seems to almost exclusively wear a throwback Phillies zip-up – has repeated the party line he stated at his introductory press conference: We need to patient and disciplined.

Here’s what he said Tuesday when speaking on SiriusXM:

“We have a town who wants to win, ownership who wants to win, a GM who wants to win. We want it to happen as soon as possible, but we have to have proper patience.”

Patience. That’s a fun word, isn’t it? Especially here in Philadelphia, capital city of the United States of Patience.

Just Monday the 76ers announced the hiring of Jerry Colangelo to the position of chairman of basketball operations, seemingly throwing a wrench of doubt into the ongoing “Process” that General Manager Sam Hinkie has commandeered. The Sixers have been opting not to sign big-money free agents, and have taken on numerous reconstruction projects, while drafting players with chronic injuries and overseas commitments. The point: hold the line with a cheap, probably terrible team until a bonafide superstar comes aboard.

It hasn’t quite worked yet, as the Sixers have only won one game during this third season of the “Process.” The Colangelo move, to many, announced “We were patient, but we’re tired of waiting.”

In the same building, the Flyers and General Manager Ron Hextall have exercised patience in their rebuilding process, which is based on developing skilled young talent. It’s a reversion from the old Flyers’ philosophy of bringing aboard high-priced veterans to keep the playoff machine humming (though without a Stanley Cup in 40 years).

While not quite the Sixers, the Flyers are not quite a playoff-competitive team yet, just as they weren’t last season. The overall picture (again, no title in 40 years) remains disappointing.

Then there are the Eagles. They’re pretty similar to the Eagles in that, most years, we’re hyped into thinking championship glory is ahead. Some years they make the playoffs, and our hype is significantly stoked. But they’ve never won a Super Bowl, and they’ve rarely been in a Super Bowl (just two). Other years they’re just a long sigh of 8-8 or 9-7, or 5-11 and a quarterback change.

This year the Eagles are a sad 5-7, and yet, amazingly, they’re tied for first place in the woeful NFC East.

And yet fans are oddly excited. Beyond the sheer enjoyment of rooting for a team competing for a playoff spot, Eagles fans were openly rooting for the Cowboys to defeat the Redskins yesterday, knowing a Washington loss would hand the Eagles a first-place tie in the East. They’re not a good football team. A playoff berth would arguably harm them more than having a terrible record (and thus opening a potential franchise overhaul with a high draft pick).

But maybe that’s all wrong. Maybe it’s nice to root for (somewhat) competitive sports. Maybe we shouldn’t be patient. Maybe we should embrace going for broke and convincing ourselves that there is a chance, berating our team executives over talk radio and openly critiquing every personnel decision.

*****

That leads us back to the Phillies and Matt Klentak. His appeal for patience is directed squarely at Philadelphia sports fans, known to be immensely passionate about their teams, win or lose. It’s directed to those of us getting fidgety because we’ve been really, really patient with the Sixers, and those of us antsy about finally hoisting another freaking Stanley Cup, and those of us, by God, who would take a week off to celebrate an Eagles Super Bowl victory.

Since the Sixers won the 1982-83 NBA title we’ve seen one four-sports championship in Philadelphia; that’s one title in 126 tries. That’s poor, and it’s – well – it’s unfair, right? Just as it’s unfair to people in Cleveland to suffer continuous professional sports failure, it’s unfair to us in Philadelphia. So patience, right? You want us to be patient? We’ve been patient for decades!

But Klentak is new here. And, as baseball executive will tell you, it’s hard to win in baseball. Hell, the 2008 Phillies may have been the worst of the Phillies teams from 2007-11, and that’s the one that won the World Series. They should’ve won in 2011, right? I stood there at Citizens Bank Park, from a distance that felt like forever, and watched weak swing after weak swing as the air deflated and the Phillies came up lame in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Cardinals. The fight had evaporated. The fight that fueled half of those 2007 and 2008 wins was just gone, far away in the thin air over the Schuylkill River.

So we have to give Klentak patience because this is all new. This is a true rebuilding process. But it’s not the NBA, where having an elite, Hall of Fame player at the prime of his career is almost a necessity to winning a championship. And it’s not the NFL, where solid culture and – yes – a really good and consistent quarterback – almost always win the Lombardi Trophy. It’s not the NHL, where developing a foundation can take years, and oh yeah, you need a hot goalie (let’s not even talk about Philadelphia’s snakebitten goaltender problem).

Baseball is, thankfully, a place where a team of any size and any team-building philosophy has and can win. It’s a place that, as we know, can be increasingly volatile come playoff time, when a team can ride a hot pitcher or two to the World Series. But again, thankfully, almost any pitcher can become hot in baseball.

So the Phillies may not have to wait five years to be a playoff team. They could contend in two if everything broke their way. But while we’re giving Klentak patience, at least to build this new team, how much should we allow? Should we start calling into talk radio after two seasons? After three? Four? What if the Phillies play better in 2016, get even better in 2017, but then take a step back in 2018? The Royals did that, you know; in fact, the Royals were terrible for countless years in its rebuild before suddenly turning into a contender.

But the Phillies are big market. They’re capable of spending like the Red Sox and Cubs; heck, they could spend like the Dodgers and Yankees in a few years, thanks to the new TV deal. So should we give Klentak less rope? Should we expect a play for contention within two years?

*****

I’m lucky. I was 24 when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, a nearly perfect age to celebrate such a momentous occasion. I can still fully remember large chunks of that regular season and postseason. Back then I was able to freely celebrate with friends and family members. And I had 23 previous years of pain, frustration and repressed energy to release in one wonderfully spastic event.

I, for one, don’t need to hurry the Phillies – or the Sixers, Flyers or Eagles – into making me a new championship memory. I hope one can come in maybe 10 years, when I’ll probably have a child who can, at least in some small way, understand how a championship can positively impact your life. I’d love nothing more than to teach my son or daughter how baseball works, introduce he or she to players like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Clayton Kershaw, and hopefully J.P. Crawford, Roman Quinn, Maikel Franco and Aaron Nola, and then watch as he or she grows attached and goes through the same emotions I went through so many times before. There’s a great connection there, and deep inside, an honest confirmation of what it means to be human.

So I can wait. And yes, there’s a balance between being patient and turning off, and being impatient and getting angry at every little thing. I’ve written about it before: The Phillies probably won’t be good in 2016. We can root for them and contently know they’ll likely lose more than they win. But no, that can’t go on for too long.

And you may not want to wait even that long. I’m sure you’re more tired of waiting with the Eagles and Flyers, and the Sixers may be frustrating you a bit. But I can’t think the Phillies – who, remember, are nearly nine years removed from their last title – are causing you to question patience. Right?

I think Matt Klentak deserves a pretty good chance. Give him until the end of 2018 to be a playoff contender (now that I think about it, having a solid foundation with good role players and an upward trajectory by the end of 2018 is better).

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