CLEARWATER, Fla. — It started again on the back fields, with a few games of catch and some bullpen sessions and hacks in the indoor batting cages.
This is the gray area of the Phillies' rebuilding process, a time to monitor a roster's progress but to be realistic about the expectations. The pitchers and catchers reported Monday for spring training, and the next seven weeks will generate hopeful stories about an emerging franchise.
"This is baseball," team president Andy MacPhail said at a table inside a cafeteria. "We're going to get some pleasant surprises. We're going to have some injuries, and we're going to have some disappointments."
That slogan will not sell tickets, but it is an accurate assessment. The Phillies, outscored by 186 runs a season ago, were lucky to win 71 games. The manager has publicly targeted a .500 record for 2017. The front office is less definitive; improvement, club officials have said, will not necessarily be found in the standings.
MacPhail, entering his second full season as president, touted the team's decision to add $66.7 million in payroll dedicated to veteran players in the outfield, rotation and bullpen. The Phillies, he said, entertained scenarios that involved lesser stopgaps or the roster spots going to younger players.
"We could have had a year where we let our payroll slip way down and, quite frankly, our ownership doesn't have the appetite for that," MacPhail, 63, said. "One year with the worst record in baseball was enough."
Offseason acquisitions: So the Phillies acquired Howie Kendrick, Michael Saunders, Clay Buchholz, Joaquin Benoit, Pat Neshek and re-signed Jeremy Hellickson. The immediate result is a triple-A Lehigh Valley team stacked with young talent both in the lineup and rotation. The Phillies are projected to have a prospect at every position there, except for third base.
Asked when the Phillies can expect to see some of those prospects in the majors, MacPhail said: "Those things will become self-evident."
For the last two years, MacPhail has stressed the importance of accumulating pitching depth. The Phillies, barring injury, have a sizeable contingent of possible mid-rotation arms at or near the majors. What is next?
"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."
MacPhail noted that most of the pitching depth is "not necessarily front-end rotation types." That does not bother him.
"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."
Ready for the 162-game grind: That will be one quest in 2017, applying the grind of a 162-game schedule to see who rises and falls. The Phillies remain in an investigatory stage; they do not know who will or will not be a part of their next great team. Some are better bets than others.
"I'd like to see improvement," MacPhail said. "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."
At some point, the improvement will be more tangible. Until then, MacPhail said he acts as a "quality control coach." He is the conduit between ownership and the baseball operations. The bigger picture is what guides him.
"Let's stay on track," MacPhail said. "Buck Showalter said something once that got my attention right from the beginning: You have to know who you are and what you are trying to do. You can get seduced into trying to get away from that occasionally. Somebody has to make sure that we stay on track and not do something that might look attractive at the present time, but that's not really what we're about."