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2023 season preview: Bullpen predictions

Will the Phillies have a good bullpen in 2023?

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Philadelphia Phillies
Gregory Soto may be asked to nail things down in the ninth inning most nights
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As we continue to look ahead to the 2023 season, I’ve been tasked with giving predictions for the Phillies’ relievers, which is typically the most difficult position to predict. Thanks to what feels like a lifetime of being disappointed by the Phillies’ bullpen, my rule of thumb is: The relievers will always be worse than I think they’ll be heading into the season.

For instance, I remember heading into the 2015 season thinking, “The rest of the team might absolutely suck this year, but the bullpen is going to be great. Jonathan Papelbon, Ken Giles, Jake Diekman, and Justin De Fratus are going to shorten games and let the Phillies win a bunch of games they shouldn't.” The 2015 bullpen wasn’t bad (they ranked eighth in reliever WAR that season), but they weren’t a lockdown unit, and they couldn’t help the Phillies avoid a last-place finish.

To predict how the bullpen will perform in 2023, I looked back at last year’s edition which always seemed to have two guys pitching well at any given time, but never any more than that. This finally caught up to them in the World Series when Rob Thomson went to the Jose Alvarado well one too many times.

The Phillies spent the offseason trying to build a bullpen that can theoretically withstand both a 162-game season as well as multiple playoff series. They acquired two pitchers with closing experience in Gregory Soto and Craig Kimbrel and a couple other arms expected to contribute this season. Will that be enough to finally give them one of the best relief units in the league?

Here are a few predictions:

Soto will lead the team in saves. I know Rob Thomson likes to mix-and-match rather than slot people into specific roles, but I have a feeling that he will want one guy used there as a default. With ample experience in the ninth, I have a feeling that Soto will be used there most often while Seranthony Dominguez will be used in whatever inning seems to be the most crucial.

We may not enjoy this setup. Soto hasn’t been the most consistent strike thrower in his career, and while I think the Phillies can help get that under control, we might have more than a few high-stress ninth innings as Soto tries to find the strike zone.

Speaking of Dominguez, I’m slightly pessimistic. Coming off a return from Tommy John surgery, he endured a lot of high-leverage innings in 2022, and it’s possible he won’t be quite as dominant as he was last season. I think he’ll still be good overall, but not at the “inning over” level he was at most of last year.

I do think the Jose Alvarado we saw in the second half of 2022 is for real. We always knew he had the stuff necessary to be a shutdown reliever, and I think he finally put it together. If there’s a tough lefty to be retired in the late innings, Alvarado will likely be called upon and will succeed more often than not.

Connor Brogdon had a strange season in 2022. He started off slowly, pitched very well in midseason, faltered down the stretch, and then pitched well in the playoffs. There were reports that his slow start was due to coming into camp out of shape, and I’m predicting that he learned from that and will show more consistency this year.

Craig Kimbrel will be a bust. Due to his veteran status, Thomson will start off using him in the “mid-inning fireman” role, and it won’t work out well. By June, fans will be wondering if the Phillies should have pursued one of the other relief options on the market instead.

The Phillies have talked up Matt Strahm as a “jack of all trades” who might even be used in the rotation to start the season. Past experience has caused me to distrust when pitchers have a constantly changing role, and next year at this time, the team will be talking about how they think bouncing Strahm around hurt his performance.

Overall, the Phillies bullpen will be good, not great. The Phillies seem determined to take it easy on their starting pitchers, at least early in the season. That means the bullpen will be called upon often, and they’ll need all eight guys to be viable options. That seems impossible, so we’re going to have some rough nights when the likes of Kimbrel or Strahm (or perhaps some of the others like Yunior Marte) simply won’t have it. But overall, I think the talent of Soto, Dominguez, Alvarado, and Brogdon will give them enough answers in the late innings.