When the Phillies entered spring training back in mid-February, the coronavirus had not yet reared its ugly head and visions of a full 162-game season danced in everyone’s heads. No one knew the season would be reduced to 60 games or fewer, and that baseball’s famed marathon would become a sprint to the finish line from Day No. 1.
Even so, general manager Matt Klentak’s plan with regards to his bullpen this year never inspired confidence. The Phillies had a semi-reliable closer in Hector Neris, and a couple decent left-handed options in Adam Morgan and Jose Alvarez. The rest of the ‘pen consisted of veteran non-roster invitees and a collection of young arms from the minor leagues, all of whom were unproven.
I wrote about my concerns with the direction of the bullpen back in December, and sadly, four games into the 2020 season, my fears appear to have been legitimate. Last night, Deolis Guerra was the first man out of the ‘pen, handed the ball to start the 6th inning down 3-1. His mission was to pick up for starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, who went five semi-productive innings against a powerful Yankees lineup and kept the Phils close. Instead, Guerra served up a three-run home run to Gio Urshela to extend then Yankee’s lead to 6-1, a hole from which the Phillies could not dig out, and continued a disturbing early-season trend of bullpen implosions.
On Opening Day, 24-year-old Ramon Rosso made his big league debut and turned a two-run deficit into a four-run hole after he uncorked two wild pitches and allowed an RBI double in the Phils’ season-opening loss to the Miami Marlins. Two days later, Cole Irvin turned a 5-4 lead into an 8-5 deficit when he gave up four runs in one inning of work. Reggie McLain and Nick Pivetta provided no additional relief in the subsequent innings of an 11-6 loss.
Guerra and Rosso are raw. Despite being 31 years old, Guerra has just 76 games and 97.1 big league innings under his belt and, since the end of the 2017 season, had pitched less than one inning of big league baseball. Rosso is a converted starter who has just 68.2 innings above Double-A to his credit. Both can throw hard, which is what intrigues the Phillies and Manager Joe Girardi, but each struggled in their first outing, and the bullpen overall has given up 11 earned runs in just four games for an unsightly 6.75 ERA, 2nd-worst in MLB.
Is it too early to castigate Guerra, Rosso and the entire bullpen after just four games? Girardi seems to think so.
More Girardi on #Phillies' bullpen: "If we were to make changes, you’re calling up kids who have no (major-league) experience as well in a sense. These were the guys we thought threw the ball the best during the camps and they got to get it done."— Scott Lauber (@ScottLauber) August 4, 2020
In any normal season, he’d be right. In a 60-game season (of which the Phillies will probably only play 53-55 games due to their COVID-related postponements), there simply isn’t time to be patient. The bullpen has been most responsible for the Phils’ 1-3 start and has confirmed a worry that most had before the season began.
Last off-season, Klentak spent big money on David Robertson, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter and none of those guys made it through the season. This off-season, Klentak seemed to overcorrect and didn’t add a single relief pitcher of note except Francisco Liriano, who the team mysteriously cut just before Summer Camp ended.
If Klentak’s decisions were based on fears of going over the luxury tax, that’s as much on owner John Middleton as Klentak. If it was a matter of wanting to see what the young kids had, then that’s on Klentak and Girardi. Whatever the reason, the season may be over by the time the Phillies know upon whom they can rely in the middle and later innings, and the problems in the ‘pen are further exacerbated by a starting rotation that has historically struggled to pitch deep into games.
If the Phillies want to reach the postseason, even with the playoff expanded to 16 teams, they’re going to need to find some answers among their relief corps sooner rather than later.
There’s no time to waste.
On Episode 404 of Hittin’ Season, I talked about the Phils’ bullpen woes with Liz Roscher and Justin Klugh, and previewed the Yankees series and the team’s frustration with the Marlins over their COVID outbreak. Make sure to subscribe, rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts and Spotify!