February 09, 2017

PHILADELPHIA (AP) The next step in the rebuilding process for the Philadelphia Phillies brings modest goals.

After improving from 63 wins in 2015 to 71 in 2016, manager Pete Mackanin wants his players to aim for 81 this season. The team has had four straight losing seasons.

''I don't want to set the goal too high because I want to be fair to everybody,'' Mackanin said last month. ''I feel like if we can play .500 and bring it in to the first part of August where the guys start jelling and believing in themselves and getting those competitive juices flowing, I think we can be in the hunt if we get to that point.''

General manager Matt Klentak made moves to bolster the roster for 2017, giving the Phillies a better opportunity to win more games now while keeping an eye on the future by avoiding lucrative, long-term contracts.

Veterans Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders, a 2016 All-Star in Toronto, provide much-needed pop at the corner outfield spots. Right-hander Clay Buchholz strengthens a deep starting rotation and could be a trade chip in July.

The newcomers join a talented young core that includes All-Star center fielder Odubel Herrera, third baseman Maikel Franco, second baseman Cesar Hernandez and shortstop Freddy Galvis.

The Phillies have one of the best farm systems in baseball so several young prospects are waiting in the wings.

NEW LOOK: Ryan Howard's departure signals the official end of the team's most successful run. Howard anchored the cleanup spot when the Phillies won five straight division titles, two NL pennants and one World Series title between 2007-11. Kendrick and Saunders replace Howard's veteran leadership in the clubhouse and give the lineup more balance. Both are known more for offense so the outfield defense will take a step back. Buchholz gives a promising rotation more experience. If he returns to All-Star form, the staff could be formidable. Relievers Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek add depth to the bullpen.

ROOKIES TO WATCH: Right-handers Vince Velasquez, Aaron Nola, Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin and Alec Asher are each under 25 and have already pitched in the majors. Shortstop J.P. Crawford, outfielders Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and Dylan Cozens, catchers Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp and first baseman Rhys Hoskins will likely start the season at Triple-A along with pitching prospects Mark Appel, Nick Pinetta and Ben Lively. Thompson, Eflin and Asher will likely join them to start the season. Quinn already got a taste of the big leagues last September and would appear first in line for a promotion.

THEY'RE SET: Hernandez, Galvis and Odubel Herrera are a solid trio up the middle. Hernandez had a strong second half and emerged as the leadoff hitter. He led the team in average (.294), on-base percentage (.371), triples (11) and walks (66). Herrera batted .286 with 15 homers and led the way with 25 steals. Galvis had a career-high 20 homers and 67 RBIs and was a finalist for a Gold Glove.

THEY'RE NOT: Gomez was Mackanin's last option to pitch the ninth inning in 2016 but emerged as a reliable closer until September. He had an abysmal final month but could begin the season in the same spot if he shows the same stuff he had between April-August. Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos are other options and Neshek and Benoit could be in the mix to close games.

ON DECK: The starting eight and the rotation appear set, assuming everyone is healthy. There will be competition at closer and for the bench spots. Most eyes will be focused on the slew of prospects in the organization. Many of the kids will get an opportunity to showcase their skills in the early part of the exhibition schedule, giving fans a look at the not-so-distant future.

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Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP-RobMaaddi

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