It’s a riddle with an uncomplicated answer: How did the Tampa Bay Rays build a pennant-winning team with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball?
“They’re able to unlock hidden value or potential in minor-league players that have been around a while,” Phillies president Andy MacPhail said recently. “They’re finding something in a player that’s not obvious. Like who’s that guy that pitched against us in Tampa, the guy that had a 15.00 ERA at Lehigh [Valley]? I think he got a save in an LCS game.”
For the record, John Curtiss had a 10.95 ERA in nine appearances for the Phillies' triple-A club in 2019 and closed a game but didn’t record a save in the American League Championship Series. But you get MacPhail’s point. Few teams are as good as the Rays at scouting, acquiring, and tapping into undervalued players.
That’s a particularly helpful way to build a bullpen, where quality relievers emerge from the darnedest places. The Rays filled up theirs by trading for Pete Fairbanks and Nick Anderson, taking Ryan Thompson in the Rule 5 draft, and signing Aaron Loup, Ryan Sherriff and Curtiss to minor-league contracts.
The Phillies could stand to find a similar no-name or two this offseason as they attempt to remake a bullpen that was historically bad (7.07 ERA in 60 games) and most culpable in the team’s failure to make the playoffs for a ninth year in a row.
For a change, though, free agency might actually be an effective path for the Phillies to find bullpen solutions.
In recent offseasons, former general manager Matt Klentak got burned (interim GM Ned Rice, Klentak’s top lieutenant, therefore must have felt the heat, too) by free-agent deals for relievers. The Phillies doled out a total of $58.125 million to Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter and David Robertson, who combined to appear in only 151 games from 2018 to 2020.
This year’s free-agent market is almost certain to be depressed because of COVID-19′s impact on teams' finances. But it’s also flooded with relievers. And because every market is shaped by supply and demand, it could be a buyer’s delight.
It’s a good thing, too, considering the Phillies' bullpen presently includes one experienced reliever: arbitration-eligible Hector Neris. Connor Brogdon and lefty JoJo Romero showed promise as rookies, but neither has the experience or track record to be trusted yet as high-leverage options for manager Joe Girardi.
Beyond that, Hunter, Adam Morgan, Blake Parker, Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree, David Phelps and Jose Alvarez are all free agents. Alvarez, who pitched well over the last two years, is a candidate to return. The same can’t be said for many of the others.
Here, then, is a look at a half-dozen relievers who figure to draw interest from the Phillies:
Brad Hand: Since 2016, he’s the only reliever to work at least 300 innings while posting a sub-2.75 ERA. One potential caution: A dip in average fastball velocity from 93.6 mph in 2018 to 91.4 mph this year. Still, it was stunning that the 31-year-old lefty wasn’t claimed on waivers last week after Cleveland let him go to save $10 million. At that price, he’d be a bargain.
Alex Colome: His strikeout rate dropped from 26.5% in 2018 to 22.1% in 2019, and 17.8% this year. But his hard-hit rate slipped, too, from 37.6% and 41.2% in 2018 and 2019, to 32.8% this year. Given those trends, is success sustainable? The 32-year-old was definitely good in 2020, posting a 0.81 ERA and 12 saves for the White Sox.
Blake Treinen: It’s doubtful he will ever repeat his dominance of 2018, when he posted a 0.78 ERA as Oakland’s closer. A 6.75 ERA in seven NLCS and World Series appearances for the Dodgers probably won’t help the 32-year-old, either. But his 97-mph sinker generates a lot of ground balls, which would be a good look for seventh and eighth innings at Citizens Bank Park.
Trevor Rosenthal: For as many relievers as the Phillies signed to minor-league fliers last winter, how did they miss this guy? After Tommy John surgery in 2018 and an awful 2019 season, the 30-year-old bounced back with a 1.90 ERA and 41.8% strikeout rate in 23 appearances for Kansas City and San Diego. His fastball is back to its pre-injury average of 98 mph, too.
Trevor May: If the name is familiar, it’s because the Phillies drafted him in 2008 and traded him four years later for Ben Revere. Since 2018, the big 31-year-old has a 2.89 ERA and 33.5% strikeout rate in 112 relief appearances for Minnesota. His 96-mph heater and nasty slider will play in the late innings, too.
Liam Hendriks: If any reliever is going to cash in, it’s the hard-throwing right-hander, who will be 32 in February. Over the last two seasons with Oakland, he has 5.3 wins above replacement, a 1.79 ERA, and 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings, putting him at the top of the reliever market and perhaps in line for last year’s Drew Pomeranz contract (four years, $34 million with San Diego). Then again, how many teams will take that leap?
The real steal, of course, will be unearthing relievers who are as undervalued as Hendriks when he cleared waivers in 2018 – and beating the Rays to them.