Dave Dombrowski’s approach to bullpen-building has changed over time, but with Phillies, he’ll face his biggest challenge yet
Depth means more than ever to the construction of a good bullpen, and Phillies manager Joe Girardi hopes Dombrowski can assemble a diverse group of relievers.
Not to dredge up all the lost leads and blown saves and shoulders-slumped Charlie Brown trudges off the field, but it bears reminding: If the Phillies had even a league-average bullpen in 2020, things would have gone differently.
“I know that they didn’t have much luck in anything they did,” Dave Dombrowski said. “They made that deal with the Red Sox. It didn’t work.”
Indeed, Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree, fixtures in Dombrowski’s mostly solid Boston bullpens from 2016 to 2019, joined the Phillies in August and combined for a 9.27 ERA in 25 appearances. Relief? Hardly. They only added to the team’s 7.06 bullpen ERA, worst in baseball.
And so Dombrowski, not demoted general manager Matt Klentak or lame-duck team president Andy MacPhail, is now leading the Phillies’ baseball operations.
Ironic, isn’t it?
It also illustrates why bullpen construction is the trickiest task facing a general manager. From one year to the next, either due to injuries or sheer fluctuation in performance, relief pitchers tend to rise and fall with a randomness that makes the whole enterprise seem like a crapshoot.
Some teams (the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays, for example) excel at it. Dombrowski’s record as a bullpen architect is mixed, at best. But if he wasn’t already aware, four hours on the phone with manager Joe Girardi since last Thursday reinforced that the Phillies must prioritize recasting almost their entire bullpen.
“I was talking to, golly, I don’t remember who it was the other day,” Girardi said, “and I said, ‘I really believe that we could have told the hitters what was coming and it wouldn’t have turned out as bad as it did.’”
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Girardi, skilled at optimally deploying relievers over the years, has two experienced options: Hector Neris and journeyman David Hale. Otherwise, it’s a collection of unproven arms led by Connor Brogdon and lefty JoJo Romero, both of whom showed promise last season but can’t be counted on yet as high-leverage options.
The free-agent market, mostly stagnant thus far, is jam-packed with late-inning relievers, including Liam Hendriks, Brad Hand, Archie Bradley, Trevor Rosenthal, Blake Treinen, Alex Colome and Shane Greene. The Phillies need to sign one or two of them, but also must find the undervalued pitchers who have eluded them recently.
“The negative part is that our bullpen needs a lot of fixing,” Dombrowski said. “The positive part is that it’s an opportunity. If you’re a reliever and you have a choice of A or B, and A has a pretty good bullpen and B is us, hopefully people are choosing us because there’s opportunity here. So we need to be aggressive.”
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In Boston, Dombrowski built bullpens that tied for eighth in ERA in 2016 (3.56) and ranked second in 2017 (3.15) and eighth in 2018 (3.72) en route to 108 wins and a World Series triumph. But in Detroit, he assembled star-studded teams that fell short in October because they lacked enough quality relievers.
The Tigers had seven winning seasons in nine years from 2006 to 2014 but ranked 25th in bullpen ERA (4.12). Even during a run of four consecutive division titles from 2011 to 2014, they were 25th, 18th, 24th, and 27th in bullpen ERA. They won only four of eight postseason series, and settled for one pennant and a World Series sweep by the San Francisco Giants in 2012.
Dombrowski has long defended the Tigers’ bullpen shortcomings by citing rotten injury luck with hard-throwing closer-in-waiting Joel Zumaya, high-priced free-agent closer Joe Nathan, promising Bruce Rondon, and others. But his philosophy of putting together a bullpen has also evolved over the years, perhaps as his familiarity with -- and acceptance of -- data and technology has grown.
With the Tigers, Dombrowski had a two- or three-person analytics staff. His basis for talent evaluation is rooted in traditional scouting, and in pursuing relievers, he has always been a sucker for power arms. Building a bullpen often meant spending big for a closer (Todd Jones in 2006, Jose Valverde in 2010, Nathan in 2014), finding a couple of setup men (Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel), and a lefty (Phil Coke) and hoping it was enough.
Dombrowski’s first big move with Boston was trading for a star closer (Craig Kimbrel). He also made trades for setup men (Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg) that didn’t work out. But with input from a robust analytics group, the Red Sox under Dombrowski turned up under-the-radar relievers such as Hector Velazquez and Ryan Brasier, deepening the bullpen in an age when reliever quantity means as much as quality.
“I think the philosophy for many years was, if you had a closer and a setup guy, you could build the rest of your bullpen,” Dombrowski said. “I’ve really changed in [realizing] that depth is important.”
Velocity still matters, and the Phillies didn’t have a reliever last season whose fastball averaged more than 95.8 mph. But diversity counts, too. The Rays built a formidable bullpen by collecting relievers who present different looks in terms of delivery and arsenal.
“I like different arm angles, I like swing-and-miss, I like guys who get both right-handers and left-handers out,” Girardi said. “When you look at teams that are successful today, they have strikeout guys, they have one guy who has a great curveball, maybe one guy who has a great slider. I think it takes all kinds. But you have to have three or four parts down there that are high-leverage guys because you may not have each one every day.”
That’s the mandate for Dombrowski. Find as many of those relievers as possible -- and then keep looking.