Nearly every pitcher projected to fit in the 2018 Phillies bullpen took a winding, twisting, turning path to where they are today. Luis Garcia, who slogged through inconsistency and repertoire changes to finally find a combo that clicked and earn his first arbitration payout; Pat Neshek, who boomerangs back to the Phillies after being traded away midseason in 2017 to his seventh different team in eight years; Tommy Hunter, who played for five different teams over just the last three years; Adam Morgan, the former top starting pitching prospect who discovered his old form (or something even better) as a reliever after surviving shoulder injuries.
Given the travails of his penmates, Hector Neris’s trip to the 2018 season looks tame by comparison, like Karl the Giant following the straight dirt path and everyone else in the bullpen is Edward Bloom taking the haunted road to Spectre. In the end, though, all of these pitchers have the same fish to fry: Get outs, and get them frequently enough to get paid more than the league minimum.
For Neris, that threshold is nearly crossed. Having fallen 19 days short of the service time accrual needed to have been arbitration-eligible this offseason for the first time, Neris will once more need to make a statement to realize his dreams of a more substantial payday.
Not that he isn’t deserving of some long-term contract consideration in the first place. Neris, since arriving for good in mid-2015, has largely been a steady, reliable relief option (his infamous April 2017 disaster outing in Los Angeles aside). Among those with 150 or more innings as a reliever since the start of 2015, Neris has a difference between his strikeout and walk percentages (K%-BB%) of 19.9, which is just ahead of Zach Britton. And while the first half of 2017 sandbagged his stats a bit, this was a guy who was absolutely on fire in the second half, throwing 36.1 innings of sub-2.50 ERA ball with 44 strikeouts and 12 unintentional walks.
If the Britton side-by-side above is making you a little antsy, don’t worry. I’m not about to suggest Neris is on the kind of level that we talk about Britton, Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel occupying. He’s simply not that dominant. What he is, instead, is a guy who has been reliable good-or-very-good for two-and-a-half seasons now, and that’s valuable in and of itself. Remember, this is a team who experimented with the likes of Jeff Manship, B.J. Rosenberg, Phillippe Aumont, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Ethan Martin, Dustin McGowan, Adam Loewen, Colton Murray, Andrew Bailey, Severino Gonzalez, Frank Herrmann, Michael Mariot, and Patrick Schuster from 2014-16 in trying to find a somewhat dependable arm to supplement a perilously thin relief corps. Count Neris among the experiments that actually worked.
What isn’t working so perfectly in concert, however, is time. Neris turns 29 in mid-June, just in time to have 2018 count as his age-29 season (a player’s age on June 30 of a given year is the cutoff for reference purposes). Over the last seven seasons, the Phillies have had six player seasons of 50-plus innings pitched at age 29 or older: Three by Jonathan Papelbon, and one each by Ryan Madson, David Hernandez, and Luis Garcia. Between Neris, Garcia, Pat Neshek, and Tommy Hunter, the team could have four such seasons this year alone, in a clear exception to the trends of recent history. This is a team that has not typically allocated so much of its relief share to players of the certain age, and it’s fair to wonder if there’s a place for Neris on this team that far down the line.
While the concept of trading Neris is a different story for a different day, all of the above really serves to underscore how important it is for Neris to make the most of the coming season. He’ll want to solidify his place among the upper tiers of relievers and make a case for a couple million dollars next winter, all while showing he’s durable enough to survive having...
- The second-most innings;
- The fourth-most appearances;
- And fourth-most pitches thrown
...among those who exclusively pitched in relief over the past two seasons. If you want a rough idea of how the market (at least, the one we used to know before this offseason) value a pitcher like Neris, the money Kansas City’s Kelvin Herrera has made over the past few seasons is a decent pace to start.
Apart from the numbers, Neris tends to be an aesthetically pleasing pitcher to watch. He’s pretty quick to the plate, having seen an uptick in his average fastball velocity each year, and features one of the most impressively hammer-ific splitters in the Majors. Look at this beautiful thing:
That, from a 2016 strikeout of Bryce Harper, is what the splitter looks like when it’s well-oiled: In the zone out-of-hand, sharply beginning to drop mid-flight, and eventually finishing with a two-plane departure from where it started (in this case, falling away from a LHB makes it especially lethal). He’s going to throw it a lot, and that’s what it needs to look like to continue to be effective.
With the current state of the Phillies bullpen featuring a possibly-post-emergence Adam Morgan and not a lot else from the left side, the onus is ever greater on the quality righties - Neris, Neshek, Hunter - to get left-handed batters out more often this season. Neris did so with aplomb in 2016 (.632 OPS against), but fell short of that standard in 2017, allowing a .716 OPS on a .356 BABIP.
So, hey, Hector: No pressure this year. All that’s on the line is an increased burden and extra scrutiny on the bullpen by way of a fragile starting rotation, being on the cusp of your first significant pay bump, likely starting the year shouldering closing duties, and trying to prove you belong as a bullpen mainstay even as your thirties approach. Beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be much you’ll be responsible for. It’s only shaping up to be the season of your life.