WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Before the trade for J.T. Realmuto and before the signing of Bryce Harper, the Phillies were confident about one thing as they prepared for spring training: They were sure that they had one of the better bullpens in baseball.
That belief was based on some valid points, starting with the addition of free-agent right-hander David Robertson, an established veteran with closer experience and the willingness to pitch whatever inning he is called upon by manager Gabe Kapler. Robertson’s stated flexibility should not be underestimated because a year ago the Phillies had a group of relievers who had never dealt with Kapler’s style of handling the bullpen.
Roles were undefined. Matchups mattered most. Not everybody was always happy.
“It was different,” Phillies reliever Pat Neshek admitted. “I was a part of a lot of teams that had an eighth-inning guy and a closer, and you get used to that. But now I’m totally fine with what we have here. If everybody does their thing, this could be like a well-oiled machine. Seranthony [Dominguez] goes two, then the next guy goes one and here we go. It’s all fine as long as we know that is how it’s going to be. I’m at the point where I will do whatever they want me to do. I just want to be prepared to pitch in a lot of games.”
Kapler admitted earlier this spring that not everybody might have been on board last season with his bullpen plan.
“I think that’s really fair,” he said. “We started [to implement change] with conversations in the offseason before spring training last year, and I’m sure those conversations were somewhat foreign and guys wanted to see how things would play out. Then as we started to utilize our bullpen in a way that put guys in their best positions to succeed and sometimes in uncomfortable situations and they still had success, it became less foreign and a little bit more natural.
“That’s not to say we’re all the way there. I think we keep taking steps in that direction. It gets more and more familiar to guys as we walk down this road.”
The Phillies have three relievers with the stuff and mentality to be closers. Robertson, who turns 34 next month, has been one of baseball’s best relievers over the last decade and has 137 career saves. He also has the ability to pitch multiple innings when needed, a bullpen trait that has become increasingly valuable in recent years.
“I came here with open arms,” Robertson said. “I’ll pitch whenever. Whatever gives us the best chance to win. I just like the ability to be in the back end of games in tight situations. When the going gets tough, that’s when I want to be in there. If I get a chance to close some games, that’s great. If I pitch in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning, so be it. If that’s what they need me to do, that’s what I’ll do.”
Dominguez and former Phillies closer Hector Neris are also a huge reason for the confidence that Kapler and general manager Matt Klentak brought to spring training. The Phillies feel they have one of the most electric relief arms in baseball in Dominguez, who made the jump from double-A Reading to the big leagues early last season and posted a 1.85 ERA and 12 saves in his first 34 games before faltering down the stretch like the rest of the team.
“I have seen him a few times and I’ve seen some of the highlight videos of him and he’s very impressive,” Robertson said. “The kid can bring it.”
Neris overcame a disastrous first half and a midseason demotion to regain the form that had made him the team’s best reliever in 2016 and 2017. He had a 6.90 ERA when he was sent to Lehigh Valley on June 29. He had a 2.04 ERA in his final 20 games upon returning.
As always, not everything has gone according to plan this spring. For the second straight year, Tommy Hunter (strained elbow) is unlikely to be ready for the start of the season. Victor Arano is the leading candidate to take his place in the pen based on how well he has pitched the last two seasons (2.57 ERA in 70 games), but he has had an incredibly bad spring as reflected by his 51.00 ERA.
Still, confidence is high from where the manager is sitting.
“I think we have a lot of guys who can [pitch] big innings,” Kapler said.
The question is how and when will Kapler use them, and how will those pitchers respond?
“I’m sure at some point the roles will narrow down and guys might be used in different scenarios, but we’ll know when those scenarios are coming,” Robertson said.
That probably will be the key to the Phillies’ bullpen being as good as Klentak and Kapler believe.