Before the bottom fell out of what had been a fun 2016 season, the Phillies' surprising accumulation of wins was in large part the result of a better-than-expected bullpen.
Jeanmar Gomez became a dependable closer. Hector Neris all of a sudden developed one of the most unhittable pitches in baseball and became a dominant set-up man. David Hernandez, aside from the occasional blow-up, has been an effective middle reliever, piling up tons of strikeouts. And the Phils have gotten good things out of Andrew Bailey as well.
But the Phillies have returned to earth. Wild card dreams are no longer dancing in anyone's heads. And as the weather gets warmer and the calendar turns to June and, soon, July, trade conversation will begin heating up.
The Phils will likely be sellers once again.
One of the areas teams could target is the bullpen. On Friday, ESPN's Buster Olney wrote about the relief pitcher trade market this summer, and had this say about the most electric arm in the 'pen, Hector Neris (Insider access required).
The 26-year-old has been outstanding as a setup man, and rival execs think the Phillies will try to capitalize on his current value, as they did with Ken Giles, because they're probably two to three years away from seriously contending. Neris has 40 strikeouts and 10 walks in 29 2/3 innings.
First, it's important to talk about the timetable for contention, because many of these decisions will be based on how soon the Phillies think they might be able to contend for a wild card.
Is 2018 the first year they can seriously consider themselves as having a shot at the playoffs? Or has the development of the starting pitching staff moved that timetable up by a year? Is there a possibility the team thinks that, with the call-up of some of their prospects and perhaps a low-cost free agent or two, they might be able to cobble an offense together that will allow them to make some noise next year?
The Phillies will certainly listen on Gomez, Hernandez and Bailey. Moving one of those guys for a reasonable price is a no-brainer. But what about Neris?
Even if the Phils aren't going to be true contenders until 2018, should the Phils give up on a young bullpen arm that throws serious gas and has developed a split finger fastball that hitters simply cannot hit?
It made sense for the Phillies to trade Giles in the off-season, especially for the package they got in return. The timetable there seemed farther away and we knew 2016 would be a rebuilding season. But we're that much closer to 2017 now, and it's unlikely Neris would bring back the same kind of return, if only because the relief market is flooded this summer.
Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Fernando Rodney, Will Smith, Jeremy Jeffress, David Phelps, Sean Doolittle, Marc Rzepczynski, Fernando Abad and David Hernandez were all mentioned in Olney's piece. And there are slew of other bullpen arms that could move too.
Not among those listed on Olney's list is Gomez who, even though he only has a strikeout rate of 6.43 K/9, he has a 2.89 ERA and has 17 saves in 18 opportunities this season. He doesn't put batters on and gets guys to hit the ball on the ground. And a great many of those saves have been with only a one-run cushion.
Holding onto an elite reliever if you're a losing team is not a great strategy, and as we saw with Giles, trading one was the right move. But if the timetable has moved up, shouldn't the Phils hold onto a 26-year-old reliever who would still be just 28 years old in 2018?
Of course, there are reasons to move him. Neris throws his split-finger pitch 60.1% of the time and there is concern over whether he'll be able to hold up under that kind of workload. And relievers, by their very nature, are volatile. Neris might finish with an ERA under 2 this year and put up a 4.50 ERA next season.
However, at some point the Phillies are going to need good, young relief pitchers who throw hard and miss a lot of bats. Would they be trading Neris just to obtain a couple of pitchers who they hope will become Neris in two or three years? If so, that doesn't make much sense.
But if the team is offered something like a Vincent Velasquez, or a bat with potential, in a deal for the young right-hander, then it is something they should seriously consider.
Trading Neris now makes less sense than trading Giles did last off-season. But under the right circumstances, it's a notion that shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.