CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Phillies are not expected to challenge for a National League East title anytime soon, but it does not mean team president Andy MacPhail doesn't expect to see some improvement in 2016. He does.
MacPhail mentions the Phillies' 34-37 record following the All-Star break last season (with Maikel Franco missing 46 of those games) as evidence they are on a good path. The Phillies entered the break 29-62, easily the worst mark in baseball, but the arrival of young talents such as Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff and Aaron Altherr, and the continued development of others like Franco and Odubel Herrera put a more competitive team on the field.
"In my view, there are a lot of positive things going forward," MacPhail said.
MacPhail is entering his first full season as team president. He returned to the game after a 3 1/2-year hiatus to focus on his personal life, where he traveled the world (China, Vietnam, Thailand, Turkey, Greece, Ecuador, Honduras, Brazil, etc.) and did the things everybody does in the summer when they don't work in baseball.
"I never grilled when I was a GM," he said. "I had a beautiful grill. It was still clean. You can grill all summer in your shorts. It was a lot of fun. I had 3 1/2 years to get that out of my system."
But now MacPhail is back at work, entrusted to lead the Phillies' rebuild. The Phils followed arguably their greatest run in franchise history (one World Series title, two National League pennants and five consecutive NL East titles from 2007-11) with a .500 finish in 2012 and three consecutive losing seasons, including the worst record in baseball in '15.
"You can't get better unless you take a good hard look at where you are," MacPhail said. "We're going to make some mistakes. But we're going to keep our eye on the prize and we're not going to deviate. The teams that get themselves in trouble are the ones that try something for two years, it doesn't work, let's try something totally different. Name a team that embarked on a legitimate, honest attempt at a rebuild that didn't in the end profit from it? Kansas City. Pittsburgh. Tampa Bay. Baltimore. You name it. As long as they stay with it, they are going to be rewarded in the end."
But that doesn't mean the Phillies don't want to win this year. They do. They just don't believe being in the market for high-priced free agents makes sense for them right now.
"This year we spent $15 million on [Charlie] Morton and [Jeremy] Hellickson," MacPhail said. "That's $15 million to stabilize the rotation. If we wanted to lose 120 games, we wouldn't have spent that $15 million. But we want Nola and Eickhoff and whoever else comes along to be able to play in an environment where it's not all on their shoulders."
MacPhail hired Matt Klentak to be his general manager, and by all accounts MacPhail has let Klentak run his show. They talk, obviously, but Klentak is not calling MacPhail every time he wants to claim a player on waivers or sign somebody.
Together they already have made some changes to the front office, most notably building an analytics department.
"But it goes so far beyond that," MacPhail said. "It annoys me when people think you've just got to go in one world or the other. Old school scouting or it's analytics. Show me the team that just doesn't have any more scouts, that has no scouting department. They don't exist. They all have scouts. Even whatever team you want to say is the most analytically inclined, they've got 20 or 30 scouts on the payroll. Why do you think that is?"
The Phillies hired amateur scout Luis Raffan, who will handle South Florida and Puerto Rico. They hired a strength and conditioning coach for Class A Williamsport, and they are talking about possibly hiring another for the Minor Leagues. The Phillies made Ray Burris their pitching rehab coordinator in Clearwater. They added high definition cameras at Citizens Bank Park to improve their video coaching. The Phillies added TrackMan, the radar system that tracks pitched and batted baseballs, and CoachMePlus, which is a data management system that provides predictive performance analytics to help monitor players' health status.
"Our payroll is down because we don't have [Cole] Hamels. We don't have [Jonathan] Papelbon. We don't have Ben Revere," MacPhail said. "We don't have a lot of guys we used to have. So we tried to take some of that money and reinvest it."
If that combination of scouting and analytics continues to uncover good young talent for the Phillies, they could turn their fortunes quicker than maybe anybody expected. (MacPhail and Klentak have been careful not to predict when they expect to be contending for titles again, because they don't know how their top prospects will pan out.)
"A market like Philadelphia, we're going to have more revenue at our disposal than we would say, in a small market where you're really scraping nickels together," MacPhail said. "Hopefully you don't stay down as long in a negative cycle."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his Phillies blog The Zo Zone, follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.