It was an unforgettable news conference -- and not in a good way.
You know the one. After firing manager Gabe Kapler 343 days ago, the Phillies’ brain trust -- managing partner John Middleton, team president Andy MacPhail, and general manager Matt Klentak -- came together to explain why they did it. For 57 minutes, they provided unintentional sound-bite gold, including Middleton’s declaration that he’s “not a potted plant sitting in the corner.”
But lost within the cascade of chatter from that day, this comment -- meant to illustrate Middleton’s role as the driving force for change in the manager’s office, as well as other recent high-level baseball-operations decisions -- resonates the loudest today.
“Signing Bryce Harper, there’s a direct link between that and achieving a strategic objective of winning the World Series. Signing a relief pitcher for one year and $2 million doesn’t have the same impact,” Middleton said. “I’m not touching that decision. I don’t even think I want to know about that decision, frankly. And I’m certainly not going to have input into that decision. The big decision is exactly where CEOs have to be. Those are decisions that make a difference."
A year later, want to bet that Middleton isn’t still underestimating the impact of a few good $2 million relievers?
The Phillies have the worst bullpen in baseball. It’s historically bad, actually. After coughing up a 6-3 lead in the seventh inning Thursday night and losing, 10-6, to the New York Mets, they had used 28 relievers this season who combined for a 7.17 ERA. Since 1901, only the 1930 Phillies had a worse bullpen ERA (8.01) over a full season. In the expansion era (since 1961), no team has had a bullpen ERA higher than 7.00.
For a more equitable comparison in this pandemic-shortened season, four teams have had at least one worse 60-game bullpen stretch in the last 20 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau: the 2007 Tampa Bay Rays (8.11), the 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks (7.77), the 2007 Chicago White Sox (7.77), and the 2007 Baltimore Orioles (7.32). None made the playoffs.
How catastrophic has the Phillies' bullpen been? Consider this: The Phils paced the National League with 44 first-inning runs through Thursday and led at some point in 42 of 49 games. But because the list of blown leads is longer than the route from the bullpen to the mound, they are struggling to stay afloat in a season in which eight teams -- more than half the league -- will qualify for the playoffs.
The bullpen’s incompetence (nine saves, 12 blown saves through Thursday) has been accentuated with 28-man rosters in a 60-game season in which organizational depth, specifically on pitching staffs, is being stretched like spandex. Phillies manager Joe Girardi recently gazed at the out-of-town scoreboard and noted the preponderance of pitchers with offensive-lineman uniform numbers who are appearing in games league-wide.
But the Phillies' problem is really rooted in the bullpen’s construction, a task that Middleton appropriately delegates to Klentak and one that many general managers over the years have struggled to master given the erratic year-to-year performance of most relievers.
How did we get here?
In the nascent stages of the Phillies' rebuilding, Klentak targeted free-agent relievers with successful track records. Think of Pat Neshek (two years, $16.25 million) and Tommy Hunter (two years, $18 million) in the 2017-18 offseason, and you get the idea. One year later, the Phillies signed David Robertson to a two-year, $23 million deal, as safe a bet as possible after he averaged 65 appearances and a 2.72 ERA in the previous nine seasons.
It didn’t work out so well. Neshek, Hunter, and Robertson got injured last season. Among them, they made a total of 32 appearances -- and $24.75 million.
So, Klentak decided to approach the bullpen differently last winter.
“In the last few years, we signed a couple of more prominent relievers to more expensive multiyear deals and really haven’t gotten a great return on those,” he said in February. “So this year we shifted the thinking a little bit. We’re attacking it with numbers.”
Rather than signing Drew Pomeranz or Will Harris at the top of the market and pushing the payroll over the $208 million luxury-tax threshold -- or even chasing more modestly priced free agents such as Jake Diekman, Brandon Kintzler, and David Phelps -- they took fliers on waiver claims (Trevor Kelley, Reggie McClain, Deolis Guerra) and veterans on minor-league deals (Francisco Liriano, Bud Norris, Drew Storen, Anthony Swarzak, Blake Parker).
The only reliever they signed to a major-league contract was Hunter, who returned on the eve of spring training on a one-year, $875,000 deal.
In February, Klentak expressed hope that “some combination of all those groups will put together a pretty good bullpen.” It didn’t happen.
Part of the Phillies' calculus was that Seranthony Dominguez and Victor Arano would return from injuries that hampered them in 2019. They also valued a stable of young relievers who posted big strikeout numbers in the minors.
In February, Klentak expressed hope that “some combination of all those groups will put together a pretty good bullpen.”
It didn’t happen.
Dominguez underwent Tommy John elbow surgery; Arano is still working his way back at the Lehigh Valley training site. From the bucket of veterans, Parker was the only one who impressed in training camp. The others were released. None has surfaced with another team.
By July, pitching coach Bryan Price talked about “trying to catch lightning in a bottle” from a collection of mostly unproven options, including Ramon Rosso, Connor Brogdon, JoJo Romero, Mauricio Llovera, and Garrett Cleavinger.
That sounded precarious then. It has been downright ruinous.
Klentak tried to fix it last month. He pulled off two trades on Aug. 21, acquiring David Hale from the New York Yankees and Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree from the Boston Red Sox. Nine days later, at the trade deadline, Klentak picked up Phelps from the Milwaukee Brewers.
All four are experienced relievers who have had varying degrees of success. They were supposed to be stabilizers. But the duct tape hasn’t helped. Among them, the new additions had a 7.52 ERA and allowed 15 homers in 32⅓ innings through Thursday.
Impossibly, the bullpen has actually gotten worse, not better.
Not even Girardi, regarded as a master of bullpen management, can wring any reliability from this group. Romero, a starter in the minor leagues, has been a revelation. Otherwise, it’s been like Groundhog Day. Enter reliever, kiss the lead goodbye. Rinse and repeat.
“These guys are doing the best they can right now,” Girardi said this past week. “They are working. They are trying to fix it.”
It almost doesn’t matter how it goes in the season’s final week. If the Phillies do reach the postseason, it’s difficult to imagine their advancing far without locking the bullpen door and disconnecting the phone.
The question now, though, becomes how will the Phillies remedy their biggest weakness. Will they get back in the free-agent game for Chicago White Sox closer Alex Colome, Oakland A’s stud Liam Hendriks, or Los Angeles Dodgers set-up man Blake Treinen? And will Klentak get a chance to do the fixing?
If Middleton didn’t appreciate the impact of a bullpen before, he surely must by now.