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Sizing up the Phillies’ bullpen race after Joe Girardi says just two spots are locked up

Hector Neris and Archie Bradley will be in the Phillies' bullpen on Opening Day. The other six spots? That's what five weeks in Clearwater, Fla. are for.

Phillies pitcher Archie Bradley at work during a spring training practice in Clearwater, Fla. on Monday.
Phillies pitcher Archie Bradley at work during a spring training practice in Clearwater, Fla. on Monday.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

How bad was the Phillies’ bullpen last season?

“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,” manager Joe Girardi said in December, two months after his bullpen finished the season with the highest ERA in 90 years.

That makes it easy to understand why the Phillies brought eight new relievers to Clearwater, Fla., this month and returned just six of the 19 relievers who made at least three appearances last season. After historic futility, the Phillies completely rebuilt their bullpen.

And now the competition begins. The Phillies plan to enter the season with eight relievers and just two of those spots are locked up as camp begins. Hector Neris, the team’s closer for most of the last four seasons, and Archie Bradley, the pitcher signed to likely be the closer, will be on the roster on April 1.

Five weeks in Florida will determine the other six.

“I feel good about a couple other guys,” Girardi said. “Jose Alvarado is a guy who has spent a lot of time in the big leagues lately. He’s had some minor injuries, but you feel pretty good about him. Locked-locked up? No. Is it possible that some of the guys competing for starting roles end up in the bullpen? Yes. That’s a possibility, too, so it’ll have to iron itself out here.”

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Alvardo, a hard-throwing left-hander, was the first player Dave Dombrowski acquired after being hired. As long as he’s healthy, he’s a safe bet.

JoJo Romero and Connor Brogdon, bright spots in last season’s bullpen debacle, seem to be in good position to break camp with the team. But they’ll be pushed this spring by veteran additions.

Right-hander Brandon Kintzler and left-hander Tony Watson were both excellent last season and have proven track records. Good springs and they’ll be on the roster, but two 40-man roster spots will first have to be cleared.

Right-hander Sam Coonrod, acquired in January, throws 98 mph but struggled last season. The Phillies focused this winter on adding velocity to their bullpen and Coonrod is the hardest thrower they picked up. Like Romero and Brogdon, Coonrod can be optioned to the minors. That provides the Phillies with some flexibility at the end of camp. They’ll need more than eight relievers to handle 162 games.

David Hale, a holdover from last season, seems to be on the fringe of the 40-man roster after being used sparingly last summer after being acquired from the Yankees. Ramon Rosso was the first reliever used last season and remains on the 40-man, but does not seem to be a contender for opening day. Left-hander Ranger Suarez was excellent in 2019 but has yet to report to camp because of visa issues. He spent a month last summer quarantining in a Clearwater hotel room after testing positive for COVID-19. His delayed arrival dims his chances at the opening-day roster.

Matt Moore, Chase Anderson, Vince Velasquez, and Spencer Howard are competing for the final two rotation spots. Two of them - likely Velasquez and Howard - could end up in the bullpen. Howard pitched just 24 1/3 innings last season, but Girardi said the Phillies are building him up to pitch an entire season. Starting him in the bullpen, perhaps in a fireman role, and then moving him to the rotation would help get him to the finish line.

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“I’m open to anything,” Girardi said. “If he pitches really well and we said ‘hey, maybe we’ll put him in the bullpen because the other guys are pitching well, too,’ maybe that’s one way you can control his innings. We’re not bound to saying, he’s going to start or that’s it. We’re here to win so if we have to be a little bit creative we will be.”

The Phillies will play 28 games in Florida before they head north. As games near, the competition for the bullpen seems much improved from last spring. After last season, it would have been hard to get any worse.

“It was just one of those years where nothing seemed to go right,” Girardi said.

Nova to start

Ivan Nova, in camp on a minor-league deal, will face his old team Sunday when he starts the Grapefruit League opener in Lakeland, Fla., against the Tigers.

Nova, 34, made just four starts last summer with Detroit and posted a 8.53 ERA. He spent the first seven seasons of his career with Girardi in New York and started at least 25 games in four straight seasons before 2020. He’s likely to begin the season at triple A as rotation depth.

Extra bases

Girardi said Wednesday that he should know soon who else will pitch Sunday. ... Sunday’s opener could be a seven-inning game as teams are allowed to shorten spring games before March 14. Girardi and Tigers manager A.J. Hinch must decide by Saturday evening. ... Girardi was impressed Wednesday by Bailey Falter, a 23-year-old fifth-round draft pick from 2015 who was added this winter to the 40-man roster. “A young lefty who has a long stride, so there’s a lot of extension there and the ball can get on the hitter so I was impressed with that.”

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