Matt Klentak's latest walk on the balance beam nets pitcher Clay Buchholz

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Associated Press

Matt Klentak's latest walk on the balance beam nets pitcher Clay Buchholz

The Phillies’ acquisition of veteran starting pitcher Clay Buchholz on Tuesday offers the latest example of the balance that the club is trying to strike between the present and the future.

Buchholz is a 32-year-old right-hander who experienced the highs of a no-hitter, two All-Star selections and two World Series championships, as well as the lows of frequent injury and being bounced from the starting rotation, during a 10-year run in Boston. The Phillies got him for Josh Tobias, a 24-year-old infielder with below average defensive ability but good on-base skills who played at the Single A level in 2016 (see story). Deep in star-quality starting pitching and concerned about baseball’s competitive balance tax, the Red Sox were looking for a place to dump Buchholz’s $13.5 million salary and Philadelphia has become the place to do that. A year ago, the Phillies gave up very little because they were willing to take on the salaries of Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton. Ditto for Pat Neshek this offseason.

The deep-pocketed Phillies were willing to add Hellickson, Morton, Neshek and now Buchholz because they all had just one year remaining on their contracts, a reality that fit nicely on Matt Klentak’s balance beam. All could help the Phillies win a few more games in the short term, you know, save the team from embarrassing itself with another 99-loss season, while not clogging the path for young talent that had already arrived from the minors or was getting ready to.

Hellickson, with his 32 starts, 189 innings and 3.71 ERA clearly helped last season. An early-season injury prevented Morton from aiding the cause. Neshek and Buchholz — and others — get their chance to impact the present in 2017.

And they might just get to impact the future, as well.

By acquiring Neshek, Buchholz and outfielder Howie Kendrick — he came earlier this offseason — the Phillies have set themselves up for a potentially busy month of July. Neshek, Buchholz and Kendrick can all be free agents at the end of the season and that makes them possible trade chips for the Phillies — provided they have performed well, and that’s no given considering all three are coming off down seasons that put them on the trading block in the first place — and trade chips are valuable for a rebuilding team.

You can add Joaquin Benoit, a recent free-agent signing, and Hellickson, back on a one-year deal after eschewing free agency, to that list, as well.

Klentak didn’t BS anyone on Tuesday. He acknowledged that Buchholz — and others — could be trade chips in July, thus helping the Phillies of the future. But he also acknowledged the attractiveness of them helping in the present, as well.

“We’re trying to make our team as competitive as we can and the hope is that we will be playing meaningful games when we get to the end of July,” he said. “But it certainly isn’t lost on us that if the standings are looking the other way at the end of July, we have a lot of meaningful players in the last years of their contracts — not just pitchers, but a number of players that could be trade chips.”

The Phillies scored just 610 runs last season, the lowest total in the majors by a whopping margin of 39 runs. Sticking to their plan of a methodical rebuild, they have not done enough to improve their offense this winter to be thought of as a potential playoff contender. Getting young talent that fits into the rebuild in return for their veteran short-timers would be ideal for this team given its current state and mission. But the ideal doesn’t always work out. Hellickson is proof of that. The Phillies didn’t get an attractive trade offer for him last summer and he didn’t reject their free-agent qualifying offer, which would have netted them a valuable first-round draft pick. So he’s back to help again in the short term, and maybe in the future if he pitches well and some team sees him as a potential difference-maker. There are many variables in this strategy of collecting assets in hopes of turning them into other assets. But the logic is there.

Still, it comes at a cost. Klentak has said many times this winter — especially when answering the question: Why aren’t you getting another hitter? — that he does not want to block the opportunities of playing time and growth for a young player by bringing in too many place-holding veterans. But, in some regards, that is just what he’s done with the addition of Buchholz, who will line up with Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez in the top four spots of the rotation with a host of others — Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Alec Asher, Adam Morgan — vying for one opening in spring training. It’s difficult to imagine Nola, if healthy, not being the guy. But one has to wonder if the Buchholz move might have some connection to Nola. He was shut down in July with an elbow strain. The Phillies say he’s fine and will be ready to go in spring training. But he’s yet to test his elbow by throwing a pitch in competitive anger (he did throw in the bullpen this fall) and until that happens, he’s a question mark. Eflin, coming off double knee surgery for chronic tendinitis, is also a question mark until he faces hitters in a competitive situation.

“Nothing specific,” Klentak answered when asked if the acquisition of Buchholz reflected a concern about the health of Nola or another pitcher.

“If everyone is healthy and pitching well, then it is possible that it may block somebody’s growth. But, realistically, going into spring training we value the depth.”

In other words, you can never have enough pitching.

And if a pitcher’s growth is blocked, it won’t be fatal and it won’t last long. There will be innings that need to be filled at Triple A and Clay Buchholz is probably just here for a pit stop. 

Ruben Amaro Jr. keeps tabs on prospects from the pivotal Hamels trade from afar

Ruben Amaro Jr. keeps tabs on prospects from the pivotal Hamels trade from afar

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Even though he's been gone for 18 months and now wears a Boston Red Sox uniform, Ruben Amaro Jr. still has skin in the Phillies' rebuild.

Amaro was the Phillies' general manager in July 2015 when the team sent Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman to the Texas Rangers for a package that included five prospects, some who have already contributed in the major leagues and others that are knocking on the door.

And though his professional concern these days is coaching first base for Red Sox, Amaro still sneaks an occasional peek at how those prospects are progressing.

"Absolutely," he said before the Phillies and Red Sox played Saturday afternoon (see story). "It's human nature.

"It seems like they're doing OK. I think eventually they will all be contributors in the big leagues. If you get five of those guys to contribute in the big leagues, I think that's a pretty good trade."

The Phillies got three right-handed pitchers, Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher and Jake Thompson, in that deal, as well as catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams.

Thompson, Alfaro and Williams will be part of a prospect-studded Triple A Lehigh Valley team this season, and all three could be regulars in the majors in a year. Asher is still a candidate to make this year's big-league club in the bullpen.

Eickhoff, of course, is already a stalwart on the club. The 26-year-old right-hander led the starting staff in starts (33), innings (197 1/3) and ERA (3.65) last season. His mark of 1.92 walks per nine innings was fourth-best among National League starting pitchers last season.

Earlier this week, manager Pete Mackanin named Jeremy Hellickson his opening day starter. Hellickson called it "a great honor," then admitted that he thought Eickhoff deserved it more.

Eickhoff has been called a throw-in in the Hamels trade.

In fact, the pitcher himself used that phrase recently.

Amaro set the record straight.

"He wasn't a throw-in," the former GM said.

In terms of upside, Eickhoff might have ranked fourth in the deal behind Alfaro, Williams and Thompson, but he was a guy the Phillies invested many scouting hours in, a guy they wanted.

"He was an important part of it because he was one of the closest to getting to the big leagues as a starter and we needed guys from the upper levels because we didn't have a lot of them in starting pitching," Amaro said.

Amaro and Rangers GM Jon Daniels worked on the Hamels deal for months before pulling the trigger at July 2015 trade deadline.

Eickhoff had popped on the Phillies' radar when scout Charley Kerfeld watched him throw on a back field at the Rangers' minor-league complex. Scouts Dewey Colbert and Bart Braun also saw him.

"All of our guys saw him," Amaro said. "Charley saw him a lot. Dewey and Bart saw him. We had multiple looks on him and everybody else in that deal. We had quality recommendations.

"He wasn't one of (Texas') top 10 guys. But that's what good scouting is all about.

"After we made the trade, I talked to Jon Daniels about it and he said Eickhoff was the guy he was most pissed off about moving because he loved his character and the way he went about his business. He told me, 'I wish you would have substituted somebody else for Eickhoff.'"

Eickhoff actually came to the majors when Amaro was still the Phillies' GM. Amaro was let go between the time Eickhoff made his fourth and fifth starts.

Amaro peeked at the box scores after Eickhoff's starts last season.

Was he surprised by Eickhoff's performance?

"With the amount of innings he had, absolutely," he said. "But that's a great credit to him.

"Eickhoff has something that's different from other guys. He's got that thing that you need as a major league pitcher to be successful. He's got that internal drive and he's got (guts). That's big. You can't measure that with a protractor.

"Other things can be measured with a protractor. That one can't.

"From my brief time with him and from talking to other people, I know he wants to be good. You can tell he's got something in there."

With all of this going for him, why was Eickhoff rated fourth in the deal?

"Ceiling," Amaro said. "When you talk about ceiling, overall stuff, Thompson was one of those guys who had a higher ceiling. But ceilings, obviously, can change when a guy gets to the big leagues.

"We had a lot of internal debates about how guys lined up in this trade."

In the months leading up to the deal, the Phillies sought Alfaro and power-hitting outfielder Nomar Mazara, who hit 20 homers as a 21-year-old rookie for the Rangers last season.

"Mazara was about as untouchable as you can get," Amaro said. "Real high-ceiling guy who we liked the most probably along with Alfaro.

"We talked for a long time. It got to the point where we would not do the deal without Alfaro. We had to get 'a guy' and everyday catcher is such a crucial position. As far as the position guys, he was the most crucial."

The Phillies wanted an outfield bat in the deal, as well. With Mazara not in play, they focused on Williams and Lewis Brinson, a prospect who the Rangers sent to Milwaukee in last summer's deal for catcher Jonathan Lucroy.

"There was a lot of discussion about Williams and Brinson," Amaro said. "We liked them both. We thought that Williams was closer at the time and we really wanted guys that were close and we liked the way (Williams) swung the bat."

The final verdict on Amaro's watershed trade with the Rangers is still years away. Hamels has helped Texas get to the postseason the last two seasons and helps fuel that club's big dreams this season.

The Phillies' haul in the deal is still percolating and the team hopes it one day comes together as a fine brew.

And if it does, Ruben Amaro Jr. can feel some satisfaction. He's no longer a Phillie, but he has some skin in the team's rebuild.

Phillies 3, Red Sox 3: Bullpen auditions continue with personnel meeting looming

Phillies 3, Red Sox 3: Bullpen auditions continue with personnel meeting looming

BOX SCORE

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Phillies officials have a big personnel powwow on Sunday and one of the matters that will be discussed is who gets the final two bullpen jobs.

With evaluation time dwindling, the Phils used Saturday's game against the Boston Red Sox as an opportunity to look at Alec Asher, Adam Morgan and Joely Rodriguez, all candidates to win a job in the bullpen.

"They all got a lot of work," manager Pete Mackanin said after the Phillies played to a 3-3 tie with the Red Sox.

The right-hander Asher worked three innings and gave up three hits and two runs.

The lefty Morgan worked three innings and allowed a solo homer.

The lefty Rodriguez worked two innings, gave up a hit and struck out three.

"To hold the Red Sox to three runs is pretty nice, especially in this ballpark," Mackanin said. "They had their guys in there and we held them down."

Morgan has allowed just one run over six innings his last two outings.

"He has changed speeds well last two times out," Mackanin said. "That's how he needs to pitch."

The Phillies have five spots set in their bullpen with Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris, Joaquin Benoit, Pat Neshek and Edubray Ramos. They are all right-handers. The final two spots will likely come down to Morgan, Asher, Rodriguez and Luis Garcia, who are all on the 40-man roster. That is an important consideration because the Phils would like to keep their 40-man roster subtractions to a minimum. There is an outside chance they could go with an eight-man bullpen, though that might be tough in the National League, where a full bench comes in handy. That will be discussed Sunday.

The makeup of the bench will also be discussed Sunday. Andrew Knapp's place on the 40-man roster will help his chance of being the backup catcher. Veteran catchers Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday both can opt of their contracts in the next few days if they are not going to make the club. Utility man Chris Coghlan also has an opt-out coming. Daniel Nava and Brock Stassi are also candidates for what looks like two remaining spots on the bench. Nava does not have an opt-out until June. Stassi is under control and would have to accept an assignment to the minors if he does not make the club.

Infielder Jesmuel Valentin is also still in camp. He is on the 40-man roster. The question is whether the team wants to carry the 22-year-old as an extra man or get him regular reps at second base in Triple A. Valentin is 11 for 31 (.355) this spring. He hit his fifth double on Saturday.

"He swings the bat really well from the right side," Mackanin said. "He's got some work to do from the left side. He's got good actions and instincts. In a short period of time, he's made a good impression on me and I think he can be a major-league player."

The game
The Phillies had 12 hits but scored just three runs. They have scored just 10 runs over the last four games.

"We just can't accumulate a lot of runs," Mackanin said.

The Phils were last in the majors with 610 runs last season.

The Phillies tied the game in the top of the ninth on a sacrifice fly by Coghlan.

Mackanin tried to suicide-squeeze home the go-ahead run, but Roman Quinn popped up the bunt.

Colton Murray preserved the tie with a clean bottom of the ninth.

Former Phillie Kyle Kendrick pitched six innings of two-run ball for Boston. He walked none and struck out six. Kendrick projects to open the season at Triple A, but is No. 6 on the Red Sox's starting pitching depth chart and is likely to see big-league at some point this season.

Up next
The Phillies host the Pirates on Sunday. Clay Buchholz will make the start against right-hander Josh Lindblom, who spent time with the Phillies after coming over from the Dodgers in the Shane Victorino trade in 2012.