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The case for adding a reliever at the trade deadline

The Phillies bullpen is deep, but you can never have enough relief pitching.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Phillies bullpen entered Sunday’s game with the fourth best bullpen fWAR in the Majors at 3.7. They’ve been a top ten or top five unit for most of the season and have been the most consistent part of a team that has struggled with consistency. Craig Kimbrel has been dominant (Sunday’s hiccup aside), Jeff Hoffman has been a real find (again Sunday aside), Yunior Marte has shown flashes, and Gregory Soto has had great stretches separated by slumps.

Their bullpen depth has allowed them to weather the storm of various injuries to two of their best arms in Jose Alvarado and Seranthony Dominguez. Both have been on the injured list for extended periods this year and the Phillies have been able to stay afloat. But, since Alvarado went on the injured list for the second time on July 9th, the Phillies have been without both pitchers for the first time this season. It’s stressing that depth to a dangerous degree and is displaying why adding another strong bullpen option should be near the top of the list this trade deadline.

Absence felt

The bullpen has a 4.70 ERA in the nine games since July 9th before Sunday afternoon in Cleveland where they blew a save and led to some anxious moments in the tenth. It seemed that the bullpen was able to settle into roles before losing both Dominguez and Alvarado. Now with them out, the roles have been shuffled and some players are pitching in higher leverage situations than is ideal.

Gregory Soto has had to take over the 8th inning/high leverage appearances and has struggled. He’s allowed four runs in six appearances since July 9th with 7 hits and three walks to just one strikeout. Matt Strahm has taken over Soto’s role as the lefty leverage/fireman role and has been shaky despite being charged with just two runs in six appearances.

Yunior Marte and Jeff Hoffman have been forced into more leverage positions, and despite some recent favorable results, it still isn’t really an area where they are best utilized.

You can never have enough

The Phillies have been the epitome of the idea that you can never have enough competent bullpen arms. But it’s also never a bad thing to have too many higher leverage bullpen arms. Dave Dombrowski evidently believed in this philosophy when he went out and traded for Gregory Soto and signed Craig Kimbrel despite the success of Alvarado and Dominguez in 2022.

With them both out, the number of pitchers you feel comfortable with in high leverage situations late in games went from four to two, and that’s a big deal when one of them exclusively pitches the ninth inning.

Also, there’s nothing that guarantees that Alvarado and Dominguez will be as effective when they return from injury. Dominguez has a 4.33 ERA across 32 appearances this season and is one home run away from tying his home run total of 4 from 54 appearances in 2022. He had allowed 4 runs in 7 games in June before landing on the IL. Alvarado picked up this season where he left off in 2022, but his old wildness was beginning to rear its head before he was injured, as he had 9 walks in 12 appearances in June and July after having none in 14 appearances prior.

Priorities in line

The biggest challenge for the Phillies this trade deadline is to inject more offense into their lineup. The Phillies offense has struggled with runners in scoring position all season and is in the bottom third of the league in home runs. That is the number one objective for Dombrowski over the next nine days.

Some may argue a fifth starter is also a priority, especially with the news that Andrew Painter is no longer an option. But with the recent performance of Christopher Sanchez coupled with the expected acquisition cost of starting pitching, this seems unlikely to be something Dombrowski is able to do for a palatable cost.

Acquiring another lock down reliever would be an alternative way to help with the fifth starter issues. It would allow Sanchez (or whoever is pitching) to not have to be stretched as far and for the back-end relievers already on the team to get more rest down the stretch. Dombrowski elected to do just this at the deadline last year when he traded for David Robertson from the Cubs before an 11th hour call from the Angels netted Noah Syndergaard.

Another benefit would be added injury/ineffectiveness insurance for Alvarado and Dominguez. Bolstering the bullpen would lessen some of the load on these two when/if they return, allowing their workloads to be managed better to attempt to avoid further injury flareups.

Cost and Options

Relief pitching is always at a premium this time of year for many of the same reasons outlined above. Teams with postseason acquisitions do not want their seasons torpedoed by a poor bullpen, and those that make it into October need strong relievers to throw high leverage innings in nearly every game.

With that said, there should be more options available for relievers than starters, making the cost more reasonable. Liam Hendriks, Ryan Helsley, Jordan Hicks, David Robertson, David Bednar, and Josh Hader are all some of the possible trade options to fulfill this requirement for another late inning option. There will be plenty more depth type relievers available as well, but the Philles would be better off targeting the higher end of the market and using their resources there. They have plenty of middle relief and low leverage options. They should exclusively target someone with whom you would feel confident in being able to pitch the 7th inning or later of a one-run game.