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Off-Season Report Card: Don’t Trade for a Closer

The first report card check-in discusses a handful of popular Phillies off-season topics that have been discussed over the last month.

MLB: General Manager’s Meetings Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a while since we’ve talked. Outside of the Phillies in Review series, the last you heard of me was the mock off-season back in early November.

There will be a handful of different installments of the Report Card this off-season. The next one will probably discuss some of the long-term questions this team could have.

For now, I picked out some of the debates that have crossed Phillies Twitter this off-season. You’ll probably understand one of them from the headline.

Don’t Spend Big for a Closer

After Craig Kimbrel’s eighth-inning disaster in game four of the NLCS, the general reaction has been that they need a closer that can go in the ninth inning.

Forget that the offense scored three runs in the final two games at home or that they had the chance to bury the Diamondbacks in game four but didn’t.

Bullpens are not built from top-dollar acquisitions and the Phillies are no exception.

The Phillies traded Garrett Cleavinger for José Alvarado, signed Jeff Hoffman to a minor league contract, waited out Seranthony Domínguez’s injuries, signed Matt Strahm to two years 15 million, traded two bench players for Gregory Soto, and drafted Orion Kerkering in the fifth-round.

This group helped them have the lowest post-season ERA among teams that made it to at least the NLDS, third-best fWAR, and seventh-best regular season ERA in baseball.

Outside of Soto (arguably the worst move I listed here), none of these moves went for major amounts of money or prospects. They built their pen by taking as many low-cost swings as they could until they landed on arms that could take down back-end innings.

Looking around major league baseball, a majority of the top closers in the game were through a similar approach. Evan Phillips failed in Baltimore before landing with the Dodgers, Clay Holmes failed in Pittsburgh, Devin Williams had a 5.82 ERA in AAA back in 2018 as a starter, and Jhoan Durán was stuck in the minors both in Arizona and Minnesota for half a decade before becoming a lights out reliever.

The Phillies have about 24 million dollars until the third Competitive Balance Tax threshold for this season and need to leave money open in the future for more valuable pieces that hit the market.

You don’t need to spend 15-20 million on Josh Hader in free agency or spend prospects on David Bednar.

Interesting one-year relievers

The Phillies still have to fill Kimbrel’s spot in the bullpen and some of that will come internally.

There’s no reason why Domínguez can’t have a bounce-back season and figure out his mechanics. Gregory Soto could put together some lights-out performances but struggled with consistency. Given what they traded for him, they should bank on their ability to fix him.

Matt Strahm won’t have lingering issues from being a starting pitcher in April this time around and they’ll get a full season of Orion Kerkering.

They still carry an extra spot and if they don’t want to hand Yunior Marté, Andrew Bellatti, or Connor Brogdon the job, some interesting right-handed relievers might only get one-year deals.

Ryne Stanek carries one of the best fastballs in the game. Opponents only hit .216 against his four-seam fastball in 2022, the year before it was only .168. He took a step back in 2023 with a 4.05 ERA after a great 2022 but he should be a good middle relief option.

Shintaro Fujinami offers a blazing fastball that averages 98.4 mph and has touched 103. There’s potentially a reduced mix of splitters and cutters that could work as well.

After a terrible stint in Oakland, he was traded to Baltimore as a middle reliever. He put up a 4.85 ERA and 4.13 FIP with the O’s. Nothing special but he still has some of the most electric stuff in baseball.

He began the year as a starter so he could be slotted as a multi-inning bullpen arm next season instead of a traditional one-inning fireballer. It would help the Phillies manage the regular season workload for their top guys and give them a second multi-inning option after Strahm.

Keynan Middleton put together a great second-half stint with the Yankees with a devastating changeup and a plus fastball. For the season, he put up a 3.38 ERA with a 30.2% strikeout rate.

There’s a chance he gets multiple years but if his market dries out, he could give the Phillies real back-end innings.

They Should Probably Add an Outfielder but It’s Hard

The club’s position is odd. Johan Rojas put together some of the best defense from a position player in the game but his lack of offensive ability should keep him in the minors to begin the year.

It’s not a big deal for his development, it’s still a promotion from where he started last year when the club never considered him a major league option.

However, if the club feels like he’s close then they’re not going to be suitors for a starting outfielder.

If Johan Rojas is enough of a threat to where the club can’t promise a full season of at-bats for someone, why would they sign here?

For example, Adam Duvall put up a .834 OPS last year and can stick in the corner defensively. Would someone like him rather sign here and risk losing their job because of front-office politics or go somewhere else?

At the same time, Rojas was in the post-season and his regular-season numbers were heavily boosted by a .410 BABIP.

The fourth-outfielder type market also isn’t great. Whit Merrifield played bad defense in left field and put up a .538 OPS in the final two months of last season.

Brian Anderson had his third straight season of below-league-average hitting, Randall Grichuk struggles defensively and doesn’t hit well enough to make up for it.

The Joc Pederson idea made some sense. He underperformed most of his projected numbers and they recently hired one of his hitting coaches from San Francisco.

However, he’s probably a DH at this point and the roster carries too many of those types. His ability to get on base would be great though.