Bryan Price was talking the other day about the wild card.
No, not that wild card. Even in the dystopic 60-game season that doesn’t open until later this week, it’s premature to discuss playoff positioning. Rather, the Phillies’ new pitching coach was thinking about which reliever -- more than one, actually -- will emerge as a trustworthy late-inning option.
"Sometimes," Price said, "you're trying to catch lightning in a bottle."
It can’t be the most comfortable position for Price and manager Joe Girardi. If the Phillies have a lead in the ninth inning, they know they will usually turn to closer Hector Neris. But if it’s the sixth, seventh or eighth inning -- in a season when starting pitchers won’t be stretched out to go much more than six innings at the outset -- the bullpen roles remain, well, unclear.
Seranthony Dominguez was supposed to be the primary setup man, but he is out indefinitely with a torn elbow ligament that likely will require Tommy John surgery. David Robertson had that procedure last summer, and although he’s on the comeback trail, it’s far from certain that he will pitch this season, especially without being able to test his elbow in the minors first.
Veteran righty Tommy Hunter had hoped to be ready for the delayed season -- and then became infected with COVID-19, missed the first half of camp, and threw a simulated game Monday. Promising lefty Ranger Suarez has missed time, too, for undisclosed reasons.
At present, the Phillies’ most experienced setup options are lefties Jose Alvarez and Adam Morgan. Victor Arano could factor into the mix, but maybe not right away because he didn’t have as much opportunity to throw during baseball’s hiatus. Arano did pitch Sunday night against Baltimore and in the intrasquad game Tuesday night, although his velocity is still building.
“He started off behind and we’re trying to catch him up, so we’re going to have to continue to discuss where we think he’s at,” Girardi said. “But it’s tough when you start from behind.”
So, with the deadline to submit the opening-day roster set for Thursday at noon, the Phillies are taking a long look at Deolis Guerra, Reggie McClain, Robert Stock, Edgar Garcia, and lefties JoJo Romero and Garrett Cleavinger, all of whom are on the 40-man roster and thus have an inside track to a spot. Nonroster relievers Damon Jones, Connor Brogdon, Trevor Kelley, and Blake Parker have had good moments in camp, too.
"Those final guys making it in your bullpen are your wild cards," Price said recently. "In the end, you need somebody to step up -- or a couple guys -- and have that type of season that you weren't sure you were going to get from them."
The bullpen toss-up made it even more surprising that the Phillies released veteran lefty Francisco Liriano and righthander Anthony Swarzak last weekend. But both relievers signed minor-league contracts, and with the Phillies only about $3 million shy of the $208 million luxury-tax threshold, allocating an additional $1.5 million apiece to Liriano and Swarzak would have pushed them over.
Jones, a younger and less expensive option that Liriano, has big upside. Hunter was on a rehab stint at double-A Reading last summer when he saw the 6-foot-5 lefty warm up in the bullpen. One name to came mind: Andrew Miller.
That's heady praise for Jones. But can the Phillies count on a 25-year-old rookie to be a difference-maker this year?
“It’s impressive,” Girardi said in spring training of Jones’ fastball-curveball-slider repertoire. “It just is. It’s sharp, it’s funky, and there are a lot of arms and legs coming at you. His downhill plane is good and there’s deception there that I see.”
Brogdon has good stuff, too, including a changeup that Nick Pivetta cited in spring training as a model for him in developing that pitch. Like Jones, though, Brogdon hasn't pitched in the big leagues and didn't have a triple-A season to smooth out the rough edges.
Among the relievers with more experience, Kelley earned praise from Price as “unbelievably impressive from the beginning” of camp. Parker, meanwhile, had some good moments last season with the Phillies and was once a key piece of the Los Angeles Angels’ bullpen, racking up a 2.90 ERA and 22 saves in 2017 and 2018.
The Phillies are planning to carry 15 or 16 pitchers on the expanded 30-man opening-day roster, which means the bullpen will go from eight relievers to 10 or 11. Neris, Alvarez, Morgan, and probably Guerra have spots. Lefty Cole Irvin likely will make the team as a long reliever.
If Pivetta loses the fifth-starter competition to Vince Velasquez, he would head to the bullpen, too. Then again, Zack Wheeler's wife is due to give birth this weekend, perhaps creating a need for Pivetta to make a start or two.
Depending on Arano’s status, that leaves at least three, maybe as many as five vacancies in the bullpen.
“With so many guys that are still in the running, it’s trying to make those final choices good ones,” Price said. “Because chances are, as the season progresses, we’re going to have to whittle that group down a little bit as well. We have a fair number of wild cards.”