Matt Klentak’s bullpen strategy failed epically. Will he get the chance to fix it? | Scott Lauber
Watching the Phillies from afar this season, Hall of Fame general manager Pat Gillick was reminded of a lesson that he learned the hard way early in his career: Don't neglect the bullpen.
In 1984, when most teams carried nine pitchers and reliever usage was far less specialized, a young general manager learned about the consequences of neglecting the bullpen.
The Toronto Blue Jays had one of the most electric offenses in baseball back then. Led by George Bell, Lloyd Moseby, Jesse Barfield, and Willie Upshaw, they paced the American League in doubles, triples, and stolen bases, ranked third in OPS, and scored the fifth-most runs. But they also had the second-worst bullpen, with a 4.09 ERA and nearly as many blown saves (24) as saves (33). The relievers combined for 28 of the team’s 73 losses, and the Jays finished 15 games out of first place.
“That’s when I finally discovered,” Pat Gillick said by phone the other day, “how important the bullpen was.”
Surely, then, Gillick had flashbacks this summer as he watched the Phillies from his home in a suburb north of Detroit. The 83-year-old Hall of Fame general manager still loves jetting around the country and scouting players, although he was unable to do so this year because of the coronavirus. But he maintains a small ownership stake in the Phillies and an interest in advising managing partner John Middleton and any other club official who seeks his input.
What Gillick saw this season reminded him a lot of the early-'80s Blue Jays. The Phillies scored 306 runs in the 60-game mini-season, fourth-most in the National League. But they were torpedoed by a historically bad bullpen that posted a 7.06 ERA, was charged with 14 of 32 losses, and blew more games (14) than it saved (11).
Most teams can’t outrun their pitching. And there isn’t anything more demoralizing to the collective psyche than late-inning losses that stack up like pancakes.
“We had a club up in Toronto that scored enough runs but we kept losing, kept losing because of the back end [of the bullpen],” Gillick recalled. “It kind of got to the point that the offensive players said to themselves, ‘How many runs do we have to score to win a game?’ And they got a little bit down when there were games that we should’ve won or were winnable and we didn’t win them. It kind of drove home to me how important it was.”
It’s not yet clear whether the Phillies will give their young general manager a chance to learn that lesson. In five years on the job, Matt Klentak hasn’t overseen a winning season, even as the payroll, as calculated for luxury-tax purposes, has soared from $103.1 million in his first season to an estimated $207.6 million this year, an increase of 101.3%.
Middleton, methodical as ever, is believed to be mulling a change. Klentak is under contract through the end of the 2022 season and will therefore get paid even if he gets fired. At a time when the Phillies, like many teams, plan to reduce staff through buyouts and/or layoffs of rank-and-file employees, paying two general managers for the next two years could be a difficult optic for Middleton.
One thing is clear: If Klentak is retained, he must do more to address the bullpen than he did last winter.
After getting burned in back-to-back offseasons by multiyear free-agent contracts for Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, and David Robertson, Klentak took a different approach. Not only didn’t the Phillies shop for Drew Pomeranz, Will Smith, or Will Harris at the top of the market, they also resisted the second-tier reliever group (Jake Diekman, Brandon Kintzler, Daniel Hudson, and others) in favor of signing veterans Francisco Liriano, Drew Storen, Bud Norris, and Anthony Swarzak to minor-league contracts.
As Klentak put it in February, “We’re attacking it with numbers.”
It didn’t work. None of the veteran fliers panned out. Seranthony Dominguez reinjured his elbow in March and had Tommy John surgery this summer. As pitching coach Bryan Price contemplated filling out an 11-man bullpen in an expanded opening-day roster, he said he hoped “to catch lightning in a bottle.”
The Phillies wound up getting struck by lightning instead.
Klentak tried to fix the problem with in-season trades that blew up in his face when Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree, and David Phelps pitched poorly. And after the season ended last Sunday, right fielder Bryce Harper said teams “can’t just go out and spend a crazy amount of money on a bullpen because you have to be able to rely on the guys in your organization to get the job done.”
Gillick tends to agree. The bullpen is typically the most variable part of a roster. Klentak isn’t the first general manager to struggle with building a good one. Not only is drafting and developing pitchers the most cost-effective way to do it, it’s also the least risky, according to Gillick.
“Because you know what you’re getting,” he said. “You don’t know how many times a guy’s gotten up in the bullpen someplace else and warmed up but never got in a game. It’s better if you can develop your own guys, and the managers, the pitching coaches in the minor leagues can give you an idea that this guy, makeup-wise and ability-wise, is more suited for the middle, that guy is more suited to the back end.”
But that also isn’t the only way. In assembling a Phillies bullpen that ranked second in the majors in 2008 with a 3.22 ERA, Gillick scooped up lefty J.C. Romero after he had been released by Boston and worked out a waiver trade for lefty Scott Eyre. The Phillies saw potential in Chad Durbin, signing him as a free agent after he posted a 4.72 ERA as a swingman for Detroit in 2007.
After seeing the damage inflicted by the Blue Jays' bullpen in 1984, Gillick acquired Tom Henke as free-agent compensation from Texas and traded for Bill Caudill and Gary LaVelle.
The point is, he took aggressive action. In Gillick’s first seven years as a GM, the Blue Jays only once had a bullpen that ranked better than 21st in baseball in ERA. Over his next 20 years, though, as relief pitching became a bigger part of the game, he constructed bullpens that ranked in the top half of the majors 13 times.
“Let me say this,” Gillick said. “When I was a general manager, there isn’t any area I would look over.”
Gillick learned the hazards of overlooking the bullpen. It remains to be seen if the Phillies will trust Klentak to do the same.