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Spring Training Battle Preview: End of Bullpen

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Several relievers, either through performance or contracts, will compose half of the bullpen. Who is in the other half?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

This is another part of a short series of previews that looks at the positional battles still to determined this spring.

The Phillies’ bullpen has accumulated several interesting parts this season to go with several interesting incumbents. It makes for an......interesting composition. What Matt Klentak has created is a set of four men who are capable of closing out a game so that the responsibility does not fall on one particular pitcher. This in turn, theoretically, allows manager Pete Mackanin to play matchups more often with his relievers rather than turn to his left and say “Welp, Larry, it’s the eighth inning and we have a lead. Better get ___________ up and loose because, you know, save situation and all.” It also gives him other options that have shown past success in getting players out at wholly acceptable rates.

This brings the Phillies dangerously close to a bullpen more sabermetrically constructed where no one is the closer and anyone can get a ninth inning save. Sure, players like Huston Street would have you believe otherwise, that it takes a certain intestinal fortitude to get three outs, ahead by three, in the last inning of a game, but in all actuality, that really isn’t the case. Besides, why management has not used this type of bullpen construction as a method of salary suppression is beyond me. Saves are worth a lot of money in arbitration, and if a front office is able to make a cheap bullpen where the saves are spread out rather than given to one player in particular, that would, in theory mind you, keep salaries for those relievers down because no one is racking up costly saves. Of course the Mike Dunn deal might mean the market is correcting itse......yeah, I’m rambling. Moving on.

So, what will the Opening Day bullpen look like? First, let’s go under the assumption that Mackanin will bring 12 pitchers north. Subtract the five starters and that leaves you with seven open bullpen spots (yay, math!). Four of those spots in the Phillies’ bullpen are spoken for by the men I mentioned above. Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit, Jeanmar Gomez and Hector Neris have spots locked down already, barring some kind of cataclysmic injury to one of them. Their contracts and/or performance will all but guarantee them a spot. That leaves us again looking for an answer to the question: who will comprise those three remaining spots? John Stolnis took a stab at what he thought in his latest (highly recommended) podcast, but we’re going to look at it here as well.

The candidates
On the 40 man roster - Joely Rodriguez, Edubray Ramos, Luis Garcia, Adam Morgan, Alec Asher, Ricardo Pinto
Non-roster invitees - Sean Burnett, Dalier Hinojosa, Cesar Ramos, Colton Murray, Michael Mariot, Pedro Beato

You’ll probably notice right away that there were several arms that the team has invited to camp that I have left off. Victor Arano, Drew Anderson, etc. That’s mostly because I just don’t see them as having a realistic shot at making the team as relievers. While they might factor into the bullpen at some point this season (particularly Arano), they more than likely will head to the minors for more seasoning. So, best not to even mention them. It’s probably best to just assume that these twelve names are the ones who are battling for those last three spots.

Joely Rodriguez is going to be a member of the bullpen. As a member of three different minor league levels last year, Rodriguez sported a fancy 2.35 ERA with good peripherals to go with them. In his twelve inning audition in Philadelphia, he did just about the same thing. Couple that with the fact he’s left-handed, and he’s almost guaranteed a spot. One down, two to go.

Edubray Ramos is also pretty much assured of a spot as well. His 2016 debut went better than expected, as his strikeout rate (25%) was pretty good and his walk rate was more than acceptable (6.9%). His groundball rate (37%) was a little lean and his home run rate could use a little work, but even still, as a 23 year old that average 95 miles per hour with his fastball, there is a lot to work with coming into the season.

That leaves one spot open.

Since a lot of this article is based on opinion, here’s mine: I don’t think Morgan has much of a chance as a reliever should he be thrust into that role. Sure, his southpaw-ness gives him a leg up on the competition, as does his ability to pitch multiple innings, but if you believe that a move to the bullpen leads to a bump in stuff, what exactly does that project for Morgan? Does his fastball go from 89-91 to 92-94? That’s still a hittable pitch. Yes, he’s much better against lefties (they have a .684 OPS against him in his major league career), but that’s still not what I would want in a reliever. His role would probably be that of a long man, which means he’s either mopping up innings or trying to keep a game from getting out of reach. This is probably much more suited to his skillset, but again, to me, he’s the next guy cut whenever another player is added to the 40 man roster.

Hinojosa, Mariot, Murray and Beato seem bound for the bus between Philadelphia and Allentown. When If someone gets hurt, they’ll be the first one called up to take that roster spot, but for now, they’re just depth.

That leaves us with Asher, Burnett and Ramos. There is a case to be made for each:

Asher - can be a long man; was much better in his second tour of duty in Philly; stuff seems better suited to relief
Burnett/Ramos - LOOGYs; have major league experience; ineffective/hurt last year, warranting a minor league deal, so they’re inexpensive

To me, this is where Asher will fit best. With so many question marks in the rotation (can Nola stay healthy? Can Velasquez be more efficient? What Buchholz are we getting?), there will be a real need to have an arm on the staff who can go multiple innings. Burnett and Ramos simply do not offer that at this point in their careers. Burnett specifically looks like he will only be able to be a LOOGY-only, coming off of a season mostly spent in the minors while also working his way back from elbow surgery in 2015. Not only has he missed time, he’s also running out there with diminished stuff. Ramos wasn’t much better last season, pitching a little over 47 innings with Texas to the tune of a 6.04 ERA. Unless they are absolutely dominant this spring, they look to be among the final cuts toward the end of spring training.

The argument to made against putting Asher into this role is that the team could begin grooming him to be an Andrew Miller-type fireman in Lehigh Valley. While he definitely does not possess that level of stuff, he could prove to be a more effective pitcher should be used in shorter bursts rather than letting batters get two or three looks from him. The team could choose to begin the year with Morgan to let this scenario play out with Asher getting accutomed to this role in the minors rather than getting blasted against major leaguers. If the team is in a playoff chase come late June and Asher is putting up performances that warrant a promotion into this new role of “fireman”, it could make this team that much more dangerous to others ahead of them chasing down that final playoff spot.

The best guess this year on who the bullpen will be is this:

Hector Neris
Jeanmar Gomez
Pat Neshek
Joaquin Benoit
Joely Rodriguez
Edubray Ramos
Alec Asher/Adam Morgan

You can make the argument that Morgan will occupy Asher’s spot, and that’s fine. I could see that; I just don’t agree with it. More than likely, I’ll be wrong anyway.