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Bullpen Battle: Who’s in, who’s out

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The Phillies figure to have a pretty good bullpen in 2019, but there are too few roster spots to go around to fit everyone in.

Baltimore Orioles v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

January is here, and as Spring Training inches ever closer, the Phillies seem to have checked off one of their offseason priority boxes. David Robertson is in; Luis Garcia is out; Jose Alvarez and James Pazos are in; Luis Avilan and Aaron Loup are out; and in the wake of that shuffling, it looks like the Phillies have essentially finalized their list of primary bullpen contenders for Opening Day.

Separating the coming season from other recent ones is an impressive depth of options, with a number of high-quality, late-inning arms locked into multiple spots. The converse of that, of course, is that there are only so many spots on the team to go around, and in a few cases, a pitcher who would be more than good enough to pitch for the Phils in another year will find himself relegated to Triple-A at the outset of the season.

Whether the Phillies ultimately start the year with seven or eight relievers will depend on how the rotation shakes out, but even with eight spots allocated to relief, some guys will be on the outside looking in. Let’s get the lay of the land and try to figure out who, assuming full health and no additional moves, will comprise the Phils’ Opening Day relief corps.

The Locks

Player IP ERA K% BB% Opp. OPS Options
Player IP ERA K% BB% Opp. OPS Options
David Robertson 69.2 3.23 32.2 9.2 .595 0
Seranthony Dominguez 58 2.95 32 9.5 .501 2
Pat Neshek 24.1 2.59 14.9 5.0 .663 0
Tommy Hunter 64 3.80 18.9 5.6 .745 0
Hector Neris 47.2 5.10 37.4 7.9 .803 0
Jose Alvarez 63 2.71 22.6 8.4 .613 0

Recent signee David Robertson has been one of the game’s best relievers for a decade. He’ll figure to get a healthy share of high-leverage appearances across a few innings.

Seranthony Dominguez, the club’s breakout success of 2018, enters his second professional season as a full-time reliever armed with one of baseball’s most wicked cutters.

Pat Neshek enters the final guaranteed year of his current deal looking to regain some strikeout power and force the Phillies’ hand into exercising their $7 million club option for 2020.

Though he frequently flirted with disaster last season, Tommy Hunter finished respectably, pitching to a 2.88 ERA in August and September.

Hector Neris had one of the most bizarre, Jekyll-and-Hyde-type seasons in recent memory. The Phillies are banking on his second act - the one in which he struck out 35 of the 69 hitters he faced after fixing a pitch-tipping issue - being more representative of the Real Hector.

Jose Alvarez, quietly, was one of the league’s more effective lefties last season for Anaheim. He’s currently the team’s top LHP option.

The Likelies

Player IP ERA K% BB% Opp. OPS Options
Player IP ERA K% BB% Opp. OPS Options
Adam Morgan 49.1 3.83 23.4 10.3 .698 0
Victor Arano 59.1 2.73 24.4 6.9 .673 3
Juan Nicasio 42 6.00 29 2.7 .828 0

Adam Morgan still has pretty good stuff, but the guy who romped through the second half of 2017 did not show up in 2018.

Victor Arano is a borderline lock; the only thing keeping him from being with that group is his optional flexibility when considering that the Phillies may only carry eight RPs and Morgan/Nicasio would both be exposed to waivers if sent out.

Speaking of Juan Nicasio: His unsightly 2018 ERA belies surprisingly strong peripherals. His second trip with the Phils is set up to be a bounceback season.

In the Mix

Player IP ERA K% BB% Opp. OPS Options
Player IP ERA K% BB% Opp. OPS Options
Drew Anderson 12.2 4.97 18.6 3.4 .792 1
Yacksel Rios 36 6.75 21.8 9.1 .853 2
Edubray Ramos 42.2 2.32 24.1 8.6 .603 1
Austin Davis 34.2 4.15 25.2 8 .812 3
James Pazos 50 2.88 21.3 7.1 .683 2

Drew Anderson has been on the fringes of “the mix” for a couple years, and while the organization appears to be high on the righty, he doesn’t really fit either as a starter or reliever right now.

Yacksel Rios throws hard. Unfortunately, all that velocity going in has, thus far, mostly resulted in velocity going out, too.

In terms of results, Edubray Ramos has performed better than everyone else in this group. His problem is that he’s a bit mercurial, and the influx of depth into the organization has made his role more questionable than it’d been the previous two seasons.

Lefty Austin Davis, a personal favorite, started his Major League career strong. He faltered later in the year as he, like the rest of the staff, struggled to get left-handed batters out. The Phils did carry three lefties for a time last year, and it’d take that (or an injury, of course) for Davis to leap over Alvarez or Morgan.

James Pazos’s optional flexibility also pushes him to the edge here.

The Longshots

Player IP ERA K% BB% Opp. OPS Options 40-Man
Player IP ERA K% BB% Opp. OPS Options 40-Man
Enyel De Los Santos 19 4.74 18.5 9.9 .836 2 Yes
Edgar Garcia (AA-AAA) 64.1 3.64 26.7 10 .639 3 Yes
Tyler Viza (Rk-AA-AAA) 87.2 2.87 22.4 7.1 .663 3 No
Luke Leftwich (AA) 62.2 3.73 26.7 9.3 .680 3 No
Kyle Dohy (A-A+-AA) 67.1 2.54 40.7 15.4 .530 3 No
Addison Russ (A-A+) 64.1 1.68 31.4 6 .532 3 No

Enyel De Los Santos is probably starting the year in Lehigh Valley’s rotation. And he figures to be an option to start if one of the top five goes down. If he’s converted, though, there’s reason to think his stuff could play up as a full-time reliever, a la Seranthony.

Recent 40-man addition Edgar Garcia gets an automatic Spring Training invite to strut his stuff. He’ll have to overwhelm everyone to skip over getting some extra Triple-A seasoning.

Tyler Viza started 2018 in Triple-A as a reliever, scuffled, went back to Double-A, got hurt, came back, and ended his year as a starter for Reading. Viza posted a 2.03 ERA over his final 11 starts for the Fightins, and a future as a starter feels as likely as one as a reliever at the moment. He’ll just need to reinforce his performance from the end of last season to clear the picture.

2015 seventh-rounder Luke Leftwich - who throws righty - has big strikeout potential, and cleaned up the Arizona Fall League with eight scoreless appearances, striking out 12 of the 40 hitters he faced.

Fascinatingly overpowering lefty Kyle Dohy amassed some ridiculous K totals for Lakewood and Clearwater, but the upper-minors challenge of Reading poured some cold water on his rocket-like ascent. He has some stuff to figure out, but is absolutely a prospect to track this year.

Addison Russ dominated the lower levels last season, spending the vast majority of his time as closer for both Lakewood and Clearwater. He was a bit old for both levels, and now 24, he’ll need to prove he can take on hitters at Reading and Lehigh Valley before being taken seriously.

Prediction

In no particular order, here’s an early January prediction of the Opening Day Phillies bullpen:

RHP David Robertson
RHP Seranthony Dominguez
RHP Pat Neshek
RHP Tommy Hunter
RHP Hector Neris
LHP Jose Alvarez
RHP Victor Arano
RHP Juan Nicasio
LHP Adam Morgan (9th man)

Consider the pitch arsenals being assembled here. Robertson, Dominguez, and Hunter all throw cutters. Neris throws a big splitter. Arano gets a lot of swings and misses from lefties with his slider. The group above is outfitted with pitch types meant to level the playing field and mitigate platoon splits, and would feature players who are effective against left-handed batters without needing to actually throw left-handed. Remember: Lefty Phillies pitchers allowed a .265/.361/.400 line to opposing lefty hitters in 2018. The .400 SLG allowed was sixth-worst in MLB for that split. The .265 opponents’ average was fourth-worst. The .361 OBP was the worst, full stop. Just throwing left-handed doesn’t guarantee results against lefties, and the ‘18 Phillies were proof.

Robertson is well-known for being effective against left-handed batters, and the club certainly believes Tommy Hunter could rediscover some of his own effectiveness against LHB. If they show enough to believe in, that could make a second lefty a bit cosmetic. That said, the Phillies won’t need a fifth starter until about mid-April, and could opt to carry someone like Morgan in the event they opt to have Vince Velasquez or Zach Eflin - who both have options - start the year in Lehigh Valley, or in the bullpen themselves. There’s a lot of offseason left, and still plenty of chances for surprises.

If nothing else, the depth on display here is encouraging. Some players’ spots are likely forced through lack of options. Neris, in particular, likely has all doubt removed because he’d need to get through waivers to not make the team, and would certainly be lost for no return. The converse, as mentioned, puts a dent in Arano’s chances, albeit not a huge one. The fact that these pitchers are available as reinforcements, at the very least, is incredibly heartening, and a reason to think the Phillies should be well-positioned and able to weather any injury concerns likely to surface throughout the season.