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There’s no resetting Phillies expectations now

There are no words the Phillies can say that can change this city’s ravenous hunger for stars.

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MLB: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

We like to think we, the Phillies fan base, are comprised of thousands of individual beating hearts and minds, firing off opinions that distinguish us as unique vessels of thought. But in truth, to the Phillies, we are very much an amorphous blob, leaving a slick, shiny trail of half-truths, bizarre notions, and illiterate Facebook comments in our wake. And they need our money.

The easiest way to do that is to sign the best players available, and we all know what that means right now. But the Phillies recognize that the idea of “Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, both, or nothing,” could be disastrous for ticket sales, so they’ve sent probably exhausted President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail—whose name has the word “fail” in it, but with a “Ph,” if you’ll recall—out to temper the expectations set by billionaire owner John Middleton; to be the brake to his gas pedal, as our John Stolnis has put it.

MacPhail was recently forced to grapple with the concept of “stupid money,” an idea put forth by Middleton weeks ago in regards to the Phillies’ free agency plans, when he said:

“We’re going into this expecting to spend money,’’ Middleton told USA TODAY Sports. “And maybe even be a little bit stupid about it.’’

Middleton laughed, then said without smiling: “We just prefer not to be completely stupid.”

What might have been an off-hand attempt at a fun quote was parsed and dissected by the masses, including here on this web site, and the general conclusion was that it was permission to freak out about the Phillies probably signing one or all of the biggest free agents, laughing as they crushed the luxury tax threshold under their boots.

So, this week, MacPhail had to step forward to a microphone and address a lathered-up fan base who had just watched the Phillies not sign either star during the MLB Winter Meetings in Las Vegas while most of their divisional rivals have continued to find a way to improve every week.

So Andy, about that “stupid money?”

“We just prefer not to be completely stupid,” Middleton added.

Still, some fans took that as the Phillies will empty out the bank vault to sign one of them. But MacPhail, like Klentak, said everybody is on the same page.

”If you talked to John, while he did say that we could be spending a little bit stupid, he also went to great lengths to say that one of those two signings were not going to be a prerequisite for a successful offseason,” MacPhail said. “You can have a very successful offseason and not include either one of those [players]. That may or may not be the case. But the way that it was portrayed put John in an awkward spot.”

The way that it was portrayed,” is a passive little way for MacPhail to put blame for the high expectations onto the fans and media: “Hey, all he did was say something provocative about the hottest topic in Phillies baseball—it’s your fault for reacting the way you did.

It’s true, of course. At least, it’s going to start being true now. If you go back, Middleton never overtly promised anything in particular for exactly this reason: So that you can’t outright say that the Phillies failed to do anything. They can do whatever they want and tell us it was all part of the plan, eventually. Right now, all they have to do is keep the truth as broad as possible so that there’s no way to corner them. We almost had them with the “stupid money” thing, but they’re wriggling free already.

“Manny Macha... no, no, no,” Middleton could say a few months from now as the Phillies open spring training with their big free agent signing, A.J. Pollock. “I said ‘Fanny Fabmatto,’ the world famous groundskeeping expert. Our outfield grass will be lush and full this season under the cleats of our brilliant new outfield. Excuse me, I just got a text saying A.J. Pollock has run straight through a brick wall chasing an ice cream truck, fracturing his entire skin and bones.”

And you know what? If I was running a baseball team, I’d be doing it exactly the same way the Phillies have been lately: In utter silence. This team has been vexing everyone watching for weeks, not letting word of its specific plans slip out, so they can avoid dealing with any premature revelations as a part of their overall strategy. Until a signature is on a contract, they’re linked to every free agent. Beyond that, they don’t care what you know, as long as it’s nothing.

The highest moment of respect I have for Matt Klentak is when he called a Howard Eskin question “ridiculous,” in regards to feeling “pressure to make a move just for the sake of making a move.” Why do you think we keep using the same images of him and MacPhail on these posts? Because so few of them exist; they don’t want to be see. They don’t want to talk to reporters. I believe if Klentak could conduct all of his Phillies business in a private office on the moon, he would do that, and we would just have to live with the results. Why subject himself to... well, to this; this thing I’m writing, and all of the other articles just like it? For transparency to the fans? Yeah, that’s important. But I wouldn’t want it to be important if I were the GM.

Right now, as a group, we lean collectively toward the pro-Harper/Machado-signing side, with a heavy emphasis on “If neither player is signed, then the Phillies have failed.” That’s not a universal temperament, but if you were to find a median opinion from the group, my feeling is it would be in there somewhere (Though the most patient among us have taken a far healthier approach).

What the Phillies would like you to consider right now is, and why they’re sending MacPhail out to parlay with us is, what if they didn’t sign Harper, and didn’t sign Machado, and everything worked out all right? Mmm? Have you thought about that situation being anything beyond an abysmal failure? No? Well, maybe consider it.

Because that may well happen. Optically, it wouldn’t look great, no matter how the Phillies try to sway things; nobody ever literally promised fans any particular player, but Middleton, it’s fair to say, did step over the invisible threshold of fan over-excitement with his comments. But you never know what factors will play a role in a team’s success or failure, and the Phillies, who no matter what happens still have deep financial and notable player assets at their disposal, could build around the absence of Harper or Machado and put together a winning team. It won’t be the team fans want to see, at first, but when Harper gets off to a slow start in Los Angeles and Machado gets suspended by the Yankees for growing a curly, villainous mustache while the Phillies thrive thanks to acquiring a couple of hitters in their lineup to knock in the base runners, people could come around.

And then, we’ll get to do this all again in 2020, when another staggering free agent class moves to the front of the line.

Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rendon could be available by then. After that? Mike Trout, Francisco Lindor, and Mookie Betts could be up for grabs. No wonder Ken Rosenthal is thinking that far ahead. He’s not the only one—we’ve seen plenty of “Wait for Trout” takes this winter alone, many of which were written by people who believe his childhood fandom of the Phillies gives them an advantage in signing the best player in the sport over a year from now (It doesn’t).

But right now, people are desperate. They want what they want, and they want it so much more than the “nothing” that’s currently going on. The Phillies are putting it on the record that none of the potential conclusions to these events is inevitable. But in the rabid fan hivemind of which we are all a part, it is far, far too late to actually expect people to start buying up season ticket packages for a team without a megastar bought and paid for.

There was a point when signing Harper or Machado was a mind-blowing notion, and if it does happen now, people will certainly be excited. But it is not viewed simply as a historically cool thing at this point—it is seen as the necessary move in order for the Phillies to contend this season. Rightfully or not, they will be seen as either a team that did was it was supposed to do, or a team that came up small, and no carefully worded speech at a podium is going to change that now.