Yes, those of you following the intense bullpen race this season at training camp have been rewarded. The names and likenesses of those brave men acting as the insulation between victory and disaster have been identified, and the Phillies will go into 2017 with the following heroes waiting behind the gate for Pete Mackanin’s signal.
Hector Neris comes into the 2017 season well prepared to dominate yet again. His numbers last year were quietly among the best in baseball for relievers (80.1 IP, 31.1 K%, 2.58 ERA), yet rarely did you hear about him in the blogosphere because of the continued domination by the Chapmans, Jensens and Millers of the world. With his ability to show he can make adjustments against major league hitters a pleasant surprise last season, there is little reason to expect regression from Neris, whose ability to get out in crucial situations was on display for the whole world to see during the World Baseball Classic for the Dominican Republic. Yet as an effective reliever under team control through 2021, there are two ways Neris’ season could go: he could be getting high leverage outs for the Phillies as they try to remain in contention for the Wild Card, or he could be scanning MLB Trade Rumors daily to check the latest updates on his status with the team. Either way, he should be effective.
In 2017, Edubray Ramos came to the major leagues with an incredible first name and a fastball/slider combination that is drool-worthy when it’s on. More often than not, it was, since Ramos’ walk rate was within reasonable parameters. His strikeout rate even inspired confidence that perhaps the Phillies had unearthed another reliever out of the rubble that is minor league bullpens. His other rate stats show that as a rookie, Ramos fared rather well considering manager Pete Mackanin thrust him into situations he wasn’t quite ready for (his 1.14 gmLI [leverage index] was third on the team among regular relievers). For a guy who averages 95+ with his fastball with a wickedly breaking slider, he’s got the stuff to succeed and now has the sample size to show that he can have success against major league hitters. With Neris working into the closers role, look for Ramos to take over his role as one of the more trusted relievers Mackanin signals for when the game is on the line.
Whenever one thinks of Garcia, the opening lyrics to "Without Me" by Eminem come to mind, and for good reason. Just when you thought he was gone off of the roster, here he comes again, pumping 95+ miles per hour fastballs with nary an idea where it’s headed. This spring, though, he’s added a splitter to his repertoire, giving him something other than a straight fastball to get hitters out with. Has it worked? Well, as of March 28, Garcia had a spring ERA of 5.19 in just over 8 innings of work. It screams small sample size, but as we’ve seen in the past, Garcia does not inspire the kind of confidence that adding a pitch will suddenly turn him into even a league average reliever. At this point, he’s barely holding on to his 40-man roster spot, likely because he can throw a sphere harder than most humans. However, if there is an injury/release/waiver claim, look for Garcia to be the first person to be designated for assignment. He feels like a prime candidate that needs a change of scenery in order to be successful in the major leagues, especially since he has not experienced it here, even with chances aplenty. Until then, though, guess who’s back?
There are two ways in major league baseball to assure yourself as a player to get, at the bare minimum, minor league contracts with spring training invites until you’re well into your twilight: throw 95+ with fastball or throw a baseball from 60’6" with your left arm. Thankfully for the Phillies, Joely Rodriguez possesses both of these traits. What’s even more exciting about Rodriguez is that he throws his with some sink to it as well. Even though it was in only 9.2 innings, his 57.7% groundball rate is exceptionally awesome when one considers who he will have to face on a regular basis (coughHarperFreemancough). If he can continue this ability to throw "turbo sinkers" (thanks, Zach Britton), he becomes all the more valuable because he will not be strictly a LOOGY; he can be deployed at will depending on how he is faring at the time. Sure, he’s young and will experience some ups and downs in the season, but if he can continually find the strike zone, Rodriguez’s stuff should serve him well.
In search of stability and veteranosity in the back end of the bullpen, the Phillies turned to Joaquin Benoit this off-season. Benoit, who be 40 in July, has been slowly ramping things up this spring (and we mean slowly), but he’s been sharp in his last few appearances. Benoit had a 5.18 ERA in the first half last season, but tore things up down the stretch with a 0.38 ERA in the second half of the 2016 campaign. He was dealt by Seattle to Toronto on July 26, and things really took off for him from there. Had that not happened, he’d probably be one of the lonely souls still looking for a job right about now. Benoit is with the Phillies on a one-year deal, so if he puts up the type of numbers that he did in the second half last year (0.38 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 9.3 K/9, 3.4 BB/9) he could end up being a trade candidate come deadline time. For now, though, the hope is that the wily veteran is geared up and ready to help this bullpen, at the very least, from April-July 31.
FLYING AMERICAN BALD EAGLE AMERICA U-S-A U-S-A U-S-A! Alright, so that’s what Pat Neshek has been up to for the last few weeks, defending our baseball freedoms in the World Baseball Classic for the United States. Neshek pitched five innings for the Americans and did not allow an earned run in five appearances, so the righty seems ready for the season despite not being in Phillies camp for a good part of it. Neshek posted a 3.06 ERA in 47 innings last season for Houston with a 0.936 WHIP, with rather extreme splits. To say the least, the Phillies will want to keep Neshek away from lefties, and he’s likely a situational guy this season. Neshek will make $6.5 million in 2017, so between his contract and Benoit’s $7.5 million deal, it’s clear the Phillies were willing to spend a bit of cash to bolster the back end of the bullpen. The new bullpen arms, and whether or not they become bait at the trade deadline, have a good chance of deciding whether this is an 80-83-win team or a 74-77-win team.
Well, Jeanmar, the closer’s job is yours to lose once again. Maybe those long talks with Brad Lidge at spring training did you some good. Maybe those lengthy bullpen sessions and games of catch during batting practice got your arm into furious playing shape. Maybe September 2016 ended when we turned the calendar, and ceremoniously burned the dates on which opposing batters hit .467 against you and ate you alive with a 1.263 OPS. Sweet lord, you were bad; if your respectable numbers in the season’s prior five months had set the Phillies up for a stretch run, your inability to miss bats may have helped them unravel. Keeping those walks down will always help, and Pete Mackanin gave you your old job back, but as John Stolnis says, we’ll see just how long that lasts.