On Tuesday morning in Clearwater, Gabe Kapler and Matt Klentak shared the dais with a rich man in a pullover making circular analogies, and a stud starting pitcher who just signed a deal that could bring him over $100 million.
Back in December, Carlos Santana became the richest Philadelphia Phillie since Cliff Lee. Now it’s Jake Arrieta who holds that honor after signing a three-year, $75 million guaranteed contract, with options and incentives that could take the deal to $135 million over five years. Arrieta is three years removed from one of the best pitching campaigns in recent memory, and while he’s not considered the very best of pitchers, he’s still a top-of-the-rotation animal, a player designed to stop losing streaks and start winning streaks.
On that fateful December day when the Phils signed Santana and, almost simultaneously, traded their longest-tenured player Freddy Galvis, it was clear a new era had begun in Philadelphia. The Phillies were prepared to turn into a team focused intently on competing for a postseason berth. While we figured 2018 was supposed to be an appetizer for what was to come, with young players taking steps and potentially turning heads as the team inches toward .500, it’s now obvious that our expectations might have to be higher right now.
The signing of Jake Arrieta means no more losing streaks. It means the old Phillies are behind us. The 2018 Phillies should play like a .500 team, and there’s an outside chance they return us to those old stompin’ grounds. But in very different times.
On July 14, 2009, the Phillies announced the signing of Pedro Martinez. One year and $1 million, plus incentives that could bring the deal to $1.5 million. And when he showed up at Citizens Bank Park for the customary dillydally with reporters, he came prepared in a two-piece suit, a fresh tie. All business. All Pedro.
He dished it out and we ate it up. Smooth as the sheen of his jheri curl, Pedro spoke circles around the media as the Big Money Phillies paraded and boasted this newfound hall of famer who just happened to be waiting around for an opportunity to pitch in the postseason. These were the salad days, when the Phils shoved half the 25-man roster into the all-star game and Charlie Manuel aww-shucked his way through the throng as the favorite manager of ball scribes and players everywhere. This was a much different time. 2009 was decades ago.
This was before Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, before we really knew how to use Twitter. The game was older and not as wiser still, with half of baseball devotedly following the Tao of Gillick and other mothball presidents. Look at ’em with your eyes. What’s a WAR? Oakland, Tampa Bay and Boston were already plotting the brick road to a new door, but a bunch of teams were still locked in the attic. The Phillies stood atop the boxes, top team in the old guard, the team of Gillick and old-boy baseball with a lifer running the show, good ol’ Rube.
We were blind to it. We saw guys just turning 30 still performing at the highest level. We saw Raul Ibanez’s first half and shivered with delight. We saw pitchers grinding through six innings and structured bullpens finishing the deed. Meanwhile those bricks were adding up. The Athletics traded a different arbitration-eligible pitcher each winter. The Rays signed young players to absurd long-term deals. The Sox recycled their roster without a second thought. But the Phillies added heavy names and heavier contracts, unafraid to go all in on age and experience. And it made sense! We were world champions, the target on our backs, and there was no way we were risking youth with a core led by the greatest second sacker of a generation. So all in we went. Rube rolled the dice. And there he was: shiny new jacket and sparkling teeth. All business. All Pedro.
Arrieta wore a thick flannel under an unbuttoned Phillies spring training jersey while talking with the media in Clearwater. He said the right things:
“A message I want to send to not only the players but to Philadelphia, in general, and the entire Phillies nation: What we’re going to do here is we’re going to promise a fight. There’s no guarantee you’re going to feel good or that you’re going to have your best stuff or you’re going to get a great night’s sleep the night before. But what we can promise is that we’re going to have conviction and we’re going to fight and we’re going to win at the end of the day.”
He said these things dryly, almost stoically, as if the computer in his brain pieced together the search terms and transformed them into sentences. That’s unfair, obviously, because Arrieta is one of the more cogent speakers in the game, but he wasn’t smooth. He was straight. He was arid. He was a ballplayer and outdoorsman, an Austinite who munches on breakfast tacos while sipping tequila at Barton Springs as much as he’s a pitcher who throws 92 with a pretty effective slider. He’s not a savior. He’s not Pedro. He’s a guy for a new era, more than a player, and a reminder that we’ve come a long way in nine years.
The new front office is no longer Gillick and Rube, but it’s led by a guy “who likes numbers,” said Scott Boras, fan of the circular analogies and an odd sight at the dais Tuesday. Is it because his top client this offseason had to wait for months to learn his fate? Or is it because next offseason means plenty of hard work with Boras about his real top client, the man-boy super-wonder Harper? It’s probably a little of both, because this is a new era. The guy “who likes numbers,” Matt Klentak, isn’t hard and fast about the guy he likes. He lives in optionality and flexibility: Sign Santana and we’ll just move Rhys Hoskins to left field. And no, we don’t have to move Tommy Joseph … unless it’s really time to move Tommy Joseph. Do we need a free-agent pitcher? Not on their terms, because we’re fine with what we have. Oh, look, Jake will do three years? Bring him in.
The new manager is a wax figurine in a ball cap. He says everything so eloquently and succinctly that his boss shrugs and says “I’m cool.” He believes in meeting his players at their level, preaching intensity and value at the margins. He loves it so much he prints shirts that say so. He’s not a tobacco chewer with big cheeks. He’s the antithesis of soft-spoken. We’ve never had anyone like him.
And the new big contract in town is a guy who wore a flannel underneath an unbuttoned spring training jersey. He didn’t exactly look like a guy who could make $135 million in the next five years. He looked like a 32-year-old dude who spends a lot of time in Austin, Texas, with his wife and young children.
Jake Arrieta is the perfect puzzle piece to complete the current configuration of the Phillies. He’s not about to elevate this team into a World Series berth, though strange things have happened before. He’s also not likely to sink completely. He’s durable, he’s effective, he has great work ethic and he’ll help the young pitching staff improve at the margins. He fits Kapler’s intensity. He fits Klentak’s data analysis and eye test. So he makes the 2018 Phillies better, close to .500 with an outside shot at stunning a few folks. They may now be one of the 10 most interesting teams in baseball.
What’s more, you’re starting to hear them whisper. Listen close to the Twitter feeds: 2019. Harper. Machado. Players. Look out. Contending. Window.
We’re here. The Philadelphia Phillies are no longer rebuilding. Now they’re just building. The window has started to crack open, and in come the big bricks: Neshek, Hunter, Santana, and now Arrieta. They’re coming bigger and bigger still.
This one isn’t yet the topper. Arrieta is just a bearded dude with a family and an ability to throw some strikes. But now he’s set us up.
We’re different now, but we’re almost back where we belong.