It’s still hard to believe the Phillies 2020 bullpen was as bad as it was.
It went beyond bad luck. Clearly there was a mystical, occult-like force at work in the pandemic-shortened season that caused every single human being who put on a Phillies uniform and spent any amount of time in the bullpen to instantly become the worst pitcher in human history. It is impossible to forget their 7.06 ERA and 12 blown saves, and impossible to forget the implosion of previously solid relievers Brandon Workman, David Phelps and Heath Hembree,
By comparison, the ‘21 bullpen was lights out, and yet, they too were below league average. Yes, their ERA “fell” to 4.60, which was a massive improvement, but it was still 6th-highest in baseball, and their 34 blown saves were tied with Washington for most in the league. The name David Hale will forever be linked to bases-clearing doubles. Among all Phils relievers with at least 25 appearances, only four (Ranger Suarez, Connor Brogdon, Hector Neris and Archie Bradley) had ERAs under 4.00. Only one (Suarez) had an ERA under 3.49.
When Major League Baseball froze upon the beginning of the league-induced lockout, the Phillies had made one major addition to their ‘pen, Corey Knebel. The 30-year-old was a former lights-out closer for the Brewers in 2017 (1.78 ERA, 39 saves) but suffered a rocky 2018, missed ‘19 with an injury, and returned late last year to provide the Dodgers with 25.2 productive innings and some outstanding postseason moments. With Neris’ free agent departure to the Houston Astros and Archie Bradley likely not being retained, Knebel is the leading candidate to assume the closer’s role.
The roles for the rest of the ‘pen will be ironed out in spring training, but there are a few spots that seem relatively sewn up.
Jose Alvarado will undoubtedly have a late-inning role once again. His overall ERA (4.20) doesn’t look impressive and he’s about as reliable a drunken politician, but when he’s on, he’s unhittable. Left-handers hit a ridiculously bad .121/.304/.164 against him, but righties had a .428 OBP and .419 slugging percentage, and his 7.60 walks per nine were entirely too high. When he has command of his 100 mph fastball and breaking pitches, he’s as dominant as anyone, and for that reason, he’ll see a lot of 7th and 8th inning, high leverage opportunities.
The Phils are hoping Connor Brogdon will become one of their unicorns, a home-grown pitcher who develops into an outstanding relief pitcher. He had his moments too, with a respectable 3.49 ERA in 55 appearances and led all relievers with a 0.8 fWAR, but allowed a lot of fly balls and didn’t strike a ton of guys out. Sam Coonrod, Seranthony Dominguez, Bailey Falter, Ryan Sheriff and Nick Nelson are all projected to be at the top of the organization’s bullpen depth chart, according to Fangraphs.
Dominguez was once thought of as a closer of the future, but upon his return from Tommy John surgery last year, he was no longer throwing close to triple digits, and he must learn how to be successful on mid-90s gas. Coonrod’s 4.04 ERA needs to be better, although a 48/15 K/BB ratio in 42.1 innings is decent. Sheriff was picked up on waivers this off-season and put up a 5.52 ERA in 16 appearances for the Rays last year. Falter’s 5.61 ERA in 33.2 innings was ghastly, but his role fluctuated between starter and reliever in AAA last year, so there’s hope a more established role could benefit the young lefty. Dombrowski sees something he likes in Nelson, acquiring him in a trade with the Yankees before the lockout, despite an 8.79 ERA in 11 big league appearances last year and 10.05 BB/9.
One look at the depth chart shows it’s pretty clear the Phils need more help, and there are still some viable options out there. But the list doesn’t go on forever.
The Dodgers’ long-time closer Kenley Jansen is still on the market and is far and away the best reliever available. He bounced back big last season with a 2.22 ERA and 38 saves in 69 appearances. If the luxury tax is increased or John Middleton decides to change direction and exceed the tax, he’d be a no-brainer.
Another former Dodger, Joe Kelly, should also be at the top of the list. Kelly appeared in 48 games (44 IP), and had a 2.86 ERA with 10.23 K/9 and 3.07 BB/9 while giving up just three home runs all season long. In fact, Kelly is adept at keeping the ball in the park, allowing a mere 21 dingers over the last six seasons (269 IP). He would immediately become the team’s primary setup man for Knebel, and there were reports the Phils were interested last off-season before the signed with L.A., so perhaps Dombrowski will circle back.
Alex Colome has been a quality relief pitcher since he entered the league in 2013 and, since 2016, has piled up 155 saves, 4th-most in the Majors. Only Jansen, Edwin Diaz and Aroldis Chapman have had more. Colome’s 4.15 ERA was bruised by a miserable April in which he blew three saves, lost three games, and posted an ERA of 8.31. However, after that, Colome had an ERA of 3.51 with a WHIP of 1.31 and saved 15 of 19 games after reclaiming the closer’s role in July. Colome’s strikeout and walk rates were similar to years past and, although his velocity was down about a mph from the previous season (93.9 mph), he’s never been a high velocity guy and has relied on a high ground ball rate to get batters out, a trend that continued last year (53.7%).
Mychal Givens was solid, if unspectacular, in 2021, with a 3.35 ERA and 4.54 FIP. He throws hard (95.0 mph) but walked a career-high 4.76 batters per nine last year, while striking out 9.53. Back in November, NBC Sports’ Jim Salisbury reported the Phils were pursuing Givens, who closed for the Reds down the stretch last season, converting 8 of 10 save chances.
Andrew Chafin was traded midseason from the Cubs to the A’s and he performed well in both locations, putting up a sparkling 1.83 ERA in 71 games (68.2 IP). He’ll pile up some whiffs (8.39 K/9) but has pretty good command (2.49 BB/9) and gave up just four homers. A relief pitcher who doesn’t walk guys and doesn’t give up homers? With a 1.4 fWAR? The 32-year-old is going to be on many teams’ radar.
Collin McHugh was outstanding for the first place Rays last year, worth 1.8 fWAR in 64 innings, where he was used in the late innings and as the occasional “opener.” The former starter has shined in his bullpen duties, with a 1.55 ERA and 2.12 FIP, thanks to 10.41 K/9 and 1.69 BB/9 last season.
All those are interesting possibilities who would unquestionably add depth to a bullpen sorely in need.
If you’re looking for some lower-cost and riskier options, Trevor Rosenthal is out there, but he’s been riddled with injuries the last few seasons. He missed all of 2018 with Tommy John surgery and, last year as Oakland’s closer, lasted jut 23 games before missing the first part of the season with thoracic outlet syndrome and, finally, a torn hip labrum that ended his season in July. The good news is he was effective (1.90 ERA) when healthy, but any interested team would need to be convinced his medicals are clean.
From 2016-20, here are Brad Hand’s ERAs: 2.92, 2.16, 2.75, 3.30, 2.05. Last year with the Nationals, it was 3.90 as he saw his K/9 fall from 13.19 in 2019 to 8.49 and his BB/9 jump from 2.83 to 3.62. And while he saved 21 games, he blew 8 and was one of the main reasons Washington had just as many blown saves as the Phillies.
Dellin Betances has pitched 13.1 innings since 2018. Jeurys Familia had a 3.94 ERA in 65 games while giving up 1.52 HR/9 and 4.10 BB/9. All are big names with not a lot to show for it in recent seasons.
The Phils also brought in a number of relief arms on minor league deals: Cam Bedrosian, Andrew Bellatti, Jake Newberry, Joe Gatto, Tyler Cyr and Michael Kelly, all who will attempt to win a job when spring training eventually begins. Trades could also be a way for Dombrowski to add to a relief corps in need of reinforcements.
But there are options out there, if the Phillies are willing to spend the money to finally fix their all-too-leaky bullpen.