A few years ago, back around the time of Tom Gordon, Antonio Alfonseca, and Geoff Geary, I started to get more exposed to the idea of reliever “fungibility.” The thought, as some of my newer-school, more forward-thinking baseball friends would put it, was that relievers are fungible, pieces of a roster that can be swapped out year-to-year without much of a variance in performance as a unit. So, given that, why spend big on long-term commitments for your relief corps?
The question makes the philosophy sound a bit reductive, but in today’s margin-obsessed, cost-cutting economical environment, well, we’ve at least got to acknowledge that rather austere motivation. But there’s a dependency: True fungibility in the bullpen only exists if you’re actually successful in replacing one reliever with another who actually is just as effective, or better, than his predecessor.
That does not describe many Phillies bullpens I know of.
There’s no one single statistic that does a great job of measuring reliever performance, but I feel that one usually does the trick across different inning totals, and that’s K%-BB%, the difference in a pitcher’s K rate and walk rate as a function of total batters faced rather than outs (X/9). So let’s look at that: Since Ken Giles was traded away following the 2015 season, the Phils have had six relief seasons of 20-plus innings and a 20-plus K%-BB%. That ranks t-17th in MLB in that time. The Tampa Bay Rays had five such seasons last year alone.
Of those six seasons, Neris accounts for three. The others are Pat Neshek v1.0 in 2017, Seranthony Dominguez in 2018, and Blake Parker last year (he was better than his ERA). Apart from a horrid first half in 2018, blamed mostly on pitch tipping and corrected after an option to Triple-A, he’s been as consistently good as any pitcher on this team for five years running.
So it seems the fungibility concept is one not so easily applied to Neris. He’s one of only 15 relievers league-wide to hit the marks above — 20 innings, 20 K%-BB% — in at least three of the past four years, and the rest of that group features some names that may be familiar, like Jansen, Chapman, Hader, Kimbrel, Doolittle, Betances, and Diaz.
|1||Kenley Jansen||4||Ind. Seasons|
|2||Will Harris||4||Ind. Seasons|
|3||Brad Hand||4||Ind. Seasons|
|4||Ken Giles||4||Ind. Seasons|
|5||Edwin Diaz||4||Ind. Seasons|
|6||Aroldis Chapman||4||Ind. Seasons|
|7||Kirby Yates||3||Ind. Seasons|
|8||Felipe Vazquez||3||Ind. Seasons|
|9||Josh Hader||3||Ind. Seasons|
|10||Roberto Osuna||3||Ind. Seasons|
|11||Hector Neris||3||Ind. Seasons|
|12||Craig Kimbrel||3||Ind. Seasons|
|13||Liam Hendriks||3||Ind. Seasons|
|14||Sean Doolittle||3||Ind. Seasons|
|15||Dellin Betances||3||Ind. Seasons|
Even if you put Hector toward the back of that pack (which would be fair), that’s still pretty exclusive company. Pitchers of his level haven’t been easy to find, even if you wouldn’t necessarily call him “elite.”
Neris is now arbitration-eligible for the second time. In 2019, he took home $1.8 million as a first-timer, and has submitted a $5.2 million ask for 2020. The Phillies have countered at $4.25 million, a should-be-easily-resolved difference of just under $1 million. He is not eligible for free agency until after 2021.
That last part is critical, because it robs Neris of some leverage in negotiations this winter. His performance has, by many measures, warranted some sort of multi-year commitment. Whether it’s two or three guaranteed years with an option or two involved, a pitcher who’s posted his numbers and been as durable as he’s been is one you typically want to keep around. And for concerns about the mileage on his arm — his 274 appearances since 2016 are tied for 5th-most in baseball, and don’t include the ones he pitched in during his two months in Lehigh in ‘18 — he’s only ever been resilient and available, and should be looked at as such until he starts to prove otherwise. It’s only fair.
What’s more, the Phillies have a highly questionable bullpen outlook beyond Hector. Their next-most reliable option, Jose Alvarez, is set to be a free agent after ‘20. After him, the group is currently made up of Adam Morgan (who is fine) and an immense number of question marks. Dominguez returning to 2018 form would go a long way for all involved, but there’s entirely too much uncertainty in play in the bullpen right now.
Unfortunately for Neris, the current arbitration and team control system being what it is, the Phillies aren’t really under pressure to commit to him right now. Hector’s 2021 season currently exists as a Get Out of Jail Free card for the Phillies, who, as with any other arbitration-eligible player, aren’t on the hook for guaranteed money past this year, should things suddenly take a horrible turn. Consider Blake Treinen as something of a cautionary tale as far as that goes.
To that end. it would be something of a good faith gesture for the Phils to offer and negotiate an extension with Neris. They’d be unlikely to simply buy out 2020 and 2021 without also securing some sort of control on a free agent year or two, whether as a guarantee or an option. The murky picture of the labor environment post-2021, after the expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, might also hamper talks, but that hasn’t come across as a huge concern to teams securing free agents so far this offseason (Phils included).
There also isn’t much precedent for an extension for an arb-eligible reliever. One of the closest recent comps, Astros breakout reliever Ryan Pressly, signed his 3-year, $20.4 million deal last March as a pending free agent. We’d have to go back a couple more years to the 2015-16 offseason, when then-Rockies RP Adam Ottavino signed a three-year, $10.4 million extension with Colorado that bought out his last two arbitration years and one free agent year. Ottavino came at something of a discount, having missed nearly all of the 2015 season due to injury. His and Neris’s numbers for the three prior seasons stack up as follows:
Neris vs. Ottavino
The injury kept Ottavino’s salary from going up in ‘16, and his true value was closer to the $9 million AAV he achieved with his free agent contract from the Yankees last January.
Regardless of factors outside of his control, Neris’s performance has proven worthy of a commitment from the team. Two weeks ago, I predicted Neris would get a two-year deal with an option, guaranteeing him $11.5 million through 2021. Assuming a raise from ‘20 to ‘21 as he reaches what would be his Arb3 year, that figure still seems realistic now that the two sides are in the $4.25-5.2 million neighborhood for ‘20. Hardly back-breaking numbers for a good relief pitcher.
He’s earned it, he’s worth it, and the Phillies may be wise to stabilize the future of their bullpen as they progress through this competitive window.