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MacPhail speaks: the Phillies will probably be better but still not great in 2017

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Team president Andy MacPhail met the media and bluntly told Phils what to expect in 2017.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies-Press Conference Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Guys, I don’t think Andy MacPhail is spending a lot of sleepless nights wondering what he’ll do at the trade deadline if his team is in wild card contention this year.

As pitchers and catchers reported to spring training Monday, the Phils’ folksy team president met with the media assembled in Clearwater and rapped about his expectations for the 2017 season. Not surprisingly, he did not pull a Rollins, here. This ain’t "the team to beat" in the NL East. Expectations were tempered.

But they should be better in 2017. Right, Andy?

"I'm looking for improvement, measurable, meaningful improvement," MacPhail said. "That could just be in the number of players that look like they can be pieces for the future. I think that's my goal for 2017."

MacPhail was asked if he had a timeline in mind for returning to true playoff contention, but he wasn’t biting on that one, saying "I’m not falling for that." There’s a reason they made him the team president, kids.

But one of the reasons the team should be much better is an improved corner outfield situation. Gone is Cody Asche, David Lough, Cedric Hunter, Peter Bourjos, and Tyler Goeddel. Veteran stabilizers Michael Saunders and Howie Kendrick, although not spectacular, should help the Phillies win a handful more games just by being competent. And while neither was a pricey addition, they weren’t free, either.

"I’m very satisfied with the way Matt was able to apply our resources," MacPhail said. "We could have had a year where we let our payroll slip way down. Quite frankly our ownership doesn’t have a great appetite for that. One year with the worst record in baseball was enough for them. And they were interested in making sure, that while we didn’t do anything to block anybody who we think might be a part of our long-term future, we should add stabilizers where it made sense, and Matt was able to do that."

The Phils added about $60 million in payroll this off-season, with all but Odubel Herrera’s extension coming on one year deals. So stick that in your pipe and smoke, all you "tanking" talkers.

And while I joked earlier about MacPhail not expecting the Phils to be buyers at the trade deadline this year, he did say that, if the team is in contention, the Phillies could look for ways to make their 2017 roster a little better.

"We know that as teams fall out of contention, they are going to be looking at opportunities to get the maximum amount for their playing talent and often that comes as a result of a trade maybe a year or two prior to free agency," MacPhail explained. "Our goal is to be ready for that eventuality. Identify those teams that might find themselves in that situation and be ready to move if the opportunity presents itself."

MacPhail once again reiterated the idea that you can never have too much pitching in this great game of ours, mostly because they tend to break down at a rate similar to that of Philadelphia 76ers big men.

"After improving the pitching, the next thing we should do is improve the pitching, and then after that we should improve the pitching," MacPhail said. "When you have to sign pitchers through free agency, they're fragile. They're expensive. There are times when you're going to have to do it, but the more you can avoid it, the more you should. To me, it's about pitching."

So, I guess he likes pitching.

If all five starters are healthy, the Phils’ rotation should be a strength in 2017. Aaron Nola’s return from elbow ailments and a rough second half will be the number-one story this spring, but if he’s healthy, he’ll front a rotation with Vince Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff, Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholz in it.

That ain’t bad at all. And there will be significant depth thanks to a AAA pitching staff that will feature a few interesting prospects, like Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, and Mark Appel. But unless Velasquez kicks it up a notch this summer, there is not a true ace in the system, as MacPhail admitted.

"Honestly, I would rather take numbers of solid prospects over the higher-valued few," MacPhail said. "Give me numbers because we know the attrition rate."

Having all that pitching is good. But it’s clear the Phillies need some of their younger bats to take some steps forward in 2017, whether it’s Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph at the Major League level, or J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Dylan Cozens or Rhys Hoskins at Lehigh Valley.

The Phillies had the worst offense in baseball last season, so one would think there’s nowhere to go but up. So, what are fair expectations for the 2017 Phillies in the eyes of their president?

"I'm focused not so much on a number [of wins} for next year. I'd like to see improvement. That can demonstrate itself in a lot of ways. So I'm looking for improvement, measurable, meaningful improvement. That could just be in the number of players that look like they can be pieces for the future. I think that's my goal for 2017."

It’s wise of MacPhail to temper expectations. Pete Mackanin is supposed to get his players to set big goals for themselves, and getting to .500 this year would be a huge achievement, a 10-win bump. Only three teams last season were able to do that, though (Boston +15, Cleveland +13, Washington +12), so it’s not easy to do.

Really, we all just want the Phillies to be watchable this summer. We want the young guys to play well at AAA and come up to the Majors in July or August. And, as MacPhail noted, we will know a better team when we see it.

"We're trying to create a foundation for a baseball franchise. The more players that demonstrate on our current team that they belong and are part of the future and the more players that percolate up from our system that demonstrate they can be part of our future, that's a good year."

Amen, brutha.

(Thanks to Meghan Montemurro, Ryan Lawrence and Matt Gelb for the quotes in this story).