Major league baseball is a high-profile profession that millions of people imbue with great importance. But within the game, there’s probably no role as anonymous or irrelevant as “relief pitcher on a bad team.” For one thing, if you do that job particularly well, you probably won’t do it for very long (see Ken Giles two winters ago, and Pat Neshek last summer). Of course, that’s also true if you’re notably bad at it; with apologies to anyone who ate before reading this, consider the names Brett Oberholzer, Frank Herrmann, and Michael Mariot, all of whom darkened the bullpen door in 2016.
On the other hand, the luxury of relief work on a lousy ballclub is that so long as you show something, anything to suggest there might be hope, there’s little reason to force you out the door. And so it was that two such pitchers emerged on the 2017 Phillies, helping to turn a terrible team (29-60 through July 15) into a decent one (37-36 thereafter).
Hard-throwing Luis Garcia, who lugged a 4.24 career ERA and 92 ERA+ into a 2017 season that was likely to determine whether or not he’d have a subsequent career, put up marks of 2.65 and 160 respectively, and comes into camp this year all but assured of a job. Lefty Adam Morgan, a rotation flameout after compiling a 7-18 record and 5.37 ERA through his first two MLB seasons, took a couple months to find his bullpen footing. But for a 20 game stretch in August and September, he threw 26 innings, pitched to a 0.69 ERA, and held opponents to a .154/.198/.165 line. He too will have a job in 2018.
We haven’t yet spoken of closer Hector Neris, who took over the role in mid-April and never let it go by riding a decent fastball and filthy splitter to 86 strikeouts in 74 innings, and now faces a potentially career-defining season. Nor the aforementioned Neshek, the team’s lone 2017 all-star with 40.1 innings of 1.12 ERA ball before a late July trade to Colorado, and who returned on a rich free agent contract this winter. Nor his fellow free agent pickup Tommy Hunter, who posted a sub-1 WHIP over 58.2 innings last year for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Another holdover, 24 year-old Edubray Ramos, had his ups and downs but finished strong and might have the gnarliest arsenal in the ‘pen. Hoby Milner, a rookie lefthander, pitched in some good fortune when putting up a 2.01 ERA, but was a legitimate weapon against same-side hitters. Fellow young arms Victor Arano, Ricardo Pinto and Yacksel Rios all flashed at times, and could figure into the mix in 2018. A couple vets, lefty Fernando Abad and former famous person Francisco Rodriguez, are also in camp fighting for jobs.
The team is reportedly planning to bring eight relievers north at the end of spring training. With a rotation full of question marks and a packed triple-A staff just a couple hours away, the functional bullpen could be even bigger. Using five pitchers every night might not make for the most aesthetically pleasing style of play, but Gabe Kapler will have options aplenty in his maiden season on the bench.
In their current molting state between rebuilding and true contention, the Phillies don’t really need to anoint a capital-C closer. Neris is a fine-for-now option, clearly preferable to his brave-hearted but modestly-talented predecessor Jeanmar Gomez. Still, it’s a decent bet that someone else will be locking down the ninth when the team gets serious about its postseason aspirations. The answer could be sitting in the minors (yo, Seranthony Dominguez and Franklyn Kilome) or working Morgan-like through chances in the rotation (‘sup, Vincent Velasquez or Nick Pivetta).
They still have a little time to figure all that out. The 2015-17 Phillies fielded unapologetically bad teams designed to sift through a seemingly endless procession of low-profile uniformed athletes to find some usable ballplayers. The 2018 version has higher aspirations, and the guys in the bullpen can count on the increased visibility that comes with loftier goals.