Joe Girardi has thought so much lately about Adam Haseley vs. Roman Quinn vs. Scott Kingery vs. Odúbel Herrera, and Brandon Kintzler vs. Tony Watson vs. JoJo Romero vs. Sam Coonrod, and whether the Phillies can somehow cram 44 players onto a 40-man roster that he’s scarcely found time for other things.
Like, say, telling Aaron Nola that he’s starting opening day.
“There’s a lot of other things that you’re trying to sort out, discussions you’re having with players,” Girardi said last week after getting around to telling Nola. “Sometimes it’s just, I forget.”
(It’s OK. Nola kind of guessed he would start his fourth consecutive opener. Plus, he’s able to count backward by five days from April 1 to his last spring-training start.)
Appointing a closer ranks only slightly higher on Girardi’s list of top-of-mind items. It isn’t that the manager doesn’t want to assign one pitcher to the ninth inning. He’s actually a fan of defining bullpen roles. But it helps to know which relievers are on the opening-day roster before deciding how to use them.
Besides, the Phillies have several options to finish out games. Héctor Neris, Archie Bradley, and José Alvarado have done it before. Kintzler has, too, and after informing the veteran right-hander that he made the opening-day roster, Girardi said Friday that “he can pitch anywhere.” Young right-hander Connor Brogdon has the stuff to close -- and maybe the stomach, too, if he gets the chance.
A case could be made for each to fill the closer role, depending on the composition of the rest of the bullpen.
“It’s whoever [Girardi] feels most confident with,” Kintzler said. “Everyone’s looked so good in spring training. I don’t know who he’s going to pick. I just don’t think it really matters, and the good thing about this bullpen, nobody cares.”
Let’s get into it here, then, by looking at each closer candidate.
Neris took over as the Phillies’ closer early in the 2017 season. He has fumbled and regained the job a few times over the years, including last season after the infamous trade for Brandon Workman.
At his best, Neris is unhittable. At his worst, he can give the manager an ulcer.
Neris has 70 career saves, 14th-most in baseball since 2017. His 82.4% save rate during that time is more or less what you would expect: Not bad, but a few notches below Kenley Jansen (89%), Aroldis Chapman (87.9%), Raisel Iglesias (87.7%), Craig Kimbrel (87.6%), Alex Colome (87.1%), Edwin Diaz (86%), and Brad Hand (85.8%).
“I don’t think it’s odd for a closer to blow three to seven saves a year if you get 40-something opportunities,” Girardi said. “It’s going to happen. But the more consistent you are, the more chance you’re going to get the baseball.”
Neris has added a slider to his splitter-fastball mix, and the early reviews are encouraging. He mixed in 16 sliders among 106 pitches in exhibition games through Thursday night and got five swings-and-misses.
Maybe the slider will enable Neris to be less predictable with his signature splitter.
“Oh, I think it can help a lot,” Girardi said. “Now you’ve got a 33 percent chance of guessing right instead of 50.”
In his introductory news conference in January after signing a one-year, $6 million contract, Bradley declined to discuss his potential role.
Perhaps it’s because he’s had so many.
Bradley came up as a starter with Arizona but moved to the bullpen in 2017 and thrived as a setup man, often for multiple innings. He closed out 18 games in 2019 and six last season before being traded to Cincinnati and reverting to a setup role.
Given Bradley’s versatility, the Phillies might find him most valuable if he isn’t confined to the ninth inning.
“That factors into part of our decision,” Girardi said. “Archie’s said all along that he’ll pitch whenever we want. He just wants to pitch important innings. I would really consider him a multi-inning guy all the time, but it’s an interesting dynamic for sure.”
One other consideration: Bradley’s average fastball velocity has inched closer to 95 mph over the last week. But he has seen a gradual dip from 96.5 mph in 2017 to 96.1 in 2018, 95.8 in 2019, and 94.4 last year. Neither Bradley nor Girardi has expressed concern, but it bears watching.
Kintzler has the slowest fastball in the bullpen. As he noted Friday, he’s also the Phillies’ oldest reliever. But he does have 61 career saves, including 12 for the Miami Marlins last year.
“I’ve been on teams where I’ve been the sixth-, seventh-, eighth-inning guy, and I’ve been the closer,” Kintzler said. “I’m really good at coming in with runners on, I’m really good at high-leverage, and I know this division really well. I think I could fit in anywhere.”
Alvarado threw 110 pitches in exhibition games through Thursday night. Sixteen were recorded at 100 mph or more.
How might that look in the ninth inning?
The Phillies haven’t had a pitcher who possesses so much triple-digit heat since former closer Ken Giles in 2015. But Alvarado threw hard with the Tampa Bay Rays, too. His problem there, in addition to injuries, was an inability to harness his command. The lefty’s walk rate rose from 11% in 2018 to 18.5% in 2019 and leveled off at 13.3% last season.
And after walking only one batter through his first six innings in spring training, he issued three walks and uncorked a wild pitch Thursday night against the Yankees. For the first time this spring, Girardi suspected Alvarado might be “overthrowing.”
Perhaps it gave the Phillies pause about considering Alvarado as a closer. Then again, that fastball is impossible to ignore.
“His stuff has been electric,” Girardi said. “This is a guy that’s throwing 100 with a 92-mph slider and his curveball’s been a weapon, too. I’m impressed by him, really impressed.”
Let’s be clear: The Phillies aren’t going to begin the season with Brogdon as the closer.
Maybe someday, though.
Brogdon had one of the roughest major-league debuts that you’ll ever see last Aug. 13. He gave up a three-run homer to Baltimore’s Pedro Severino on his first pitch and a two-run shot to Rio Ruiz six batters later.
Here, though, is what he did in his final six appearances of the season: 8 2/3 innings, 1 hit, 0 runs, 2 walks, 14 strikeouts.
Through Thursday, Brogdon hadn’t allowed a run in five spring training innings. He throws a fastball in the mid-90s and offsets it with a bat-slowing changeup.
“I think he definitely has the ability to be a closer one day,” Girardi said. “But I’m not putting that type of pressure on Connor. I just want Connor to get in the groove that he was at the end of last year and then we’ll find places for him to pitch in the back end.”