It’s almost the bottom of the ninth inning in the Phillies’ bullpen competition.
Veteran relievers Brandon Kintzler, Tony Watson, and Héctor Rondón can — and almost certainly will — exercise opt-out clauses in their minor-league contracts on Wednesday. The Phillies would then have 48 hours to add them to the 40-man roster, which is at capacity.
So, although camp doesn’t break until next Monday and the opening-day roster doesn’t have to be submitted until noon on April 1, the time for decisions is nigh.
“I imagine we have some long days coming up with meetings to go over all this stuff,” manager Joe Girardi said Monday. “By this weekend, it would probably round into a pretty good idea what we’re going to have in our bullpen.”
Kintzler, Watson, and Rondón are among nine pitchers competing for five spots behind locks Archie Bradley, Héctor Neris, and lefty José Alvarado. The Phillies could carry an extra reliever, but Girardi has said he prefers an eight-man bullpen and a five-man bench.
Spring-training performance matters, of course, and most of the relief candidates have pitched well in exhibition games, a relief to Girardi after last season’s bullpen nightmare. But there’s also the matter of maximizing depth. As much as the Phillies want their best eight relievers on the opening-day roster, they also want to keep quality arms in reserve at the Lehigh Valley alternate site, and eventually in triple A.
It’s helpful, then, to think of the bullpen — and the 40-man roster, in general — as a jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces must fit together for an organization to remain competitive for a six-month season. With that, let’s break down the nine bullpen candidates into four categories:
Relievers with options
On merit, Connor Brogdon, JoJo Romero, and Sam Coonrod would make the team.
In reality, at least one may be excluded.
All three can be optioned to the minors without being subject to waivers, which could work to their disadvantage if the Phillies must choose between carrying them and losing another player.
To wit: Romero pitched well in spurts last season and has a 1.50 ERA in six innings this spring. He isn’t afraid to challenge hitters, and the Phillies like his competitiveness. They could elect to carry three lefty relievers. But if it comes down to Watson or Romero, they could add the former to the roster and stash the latter in triple A rather than losing Watson to another team.
Brogdon hasn’t allowed a hit in four scoreless innings this spring and would seem to have a job locked up based on his lights-out finish to last season (one hit, two walks, 14 strikeouts in 8⅔ scoreless innings). He missed a few days recently after a rib popped out of place, so this will be a big week for him to finish the spring strong.
Coonrod, acquired from San Francisco in an offseason trade, has impressed with an upper-90s fastball and good command. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski likes power arms, and Coonrod definitely qualifies.
David Hale made only six appearances for the Phillies after being acquired last August. It was mildly surprising, then, when they tendered him a contract in the offseason.
Hale has pitched well enough this spring that he likely would be claimed off waivers if the Phillies tried to send him to the minors. There also appears to be a role for him now, with Girardi preferring to carry both a long man and a multi-inning reliever.
“You’d like to have two people that can give you some distance just so you don’t have to go through your bullpen if you don’t want to,” Girardi said last weekend. “I would consider Hale a multiple-inning guy. He’s someone that can do it.”
All signs point to Matt Moore and Chase Anderson claiming the final two spots in the starting rotation. With Zach Eflin having overcome a minor back issue last week, the rotation is set.
So, what happens to Vince Velasquez and Spencer Howard?
The Phillies could trade Velasquez, although he’s likely more valuable as starter depth. He’s also a better fit than Howard for the long-relief role.
“I’ve never met a guy that was competing for a starting role and was happy to go to the bullpen,” Girardi said. “There will have to be some discussions that we have with players where we say, ‘We need you to do this. We need you to buy in.’ And the decision that we make in April is not the decision that has to hold true in June. You can pitch yourself into a bigger piece.”
Howard, meanwhile, has dealt with back spasms for the last week. It’s hardly a serious issue, but it may be the perfect excuse to option him to the alternate site, where the Phillies can monitor his workload and keep him ready when they need help in the rotation.
Between them, Kintzler and Watson have appeared in 1,081 major-league games. Kintzler has a 3.31 career ERA; Watson has a 2.80 mark. And entering their scheduled appearances Monday night, both had proved they can keep getting outs despite throwing mostly in the low 90s.
“They know how to pitch and they’re not going to beat themselves,” Girardi said. “They’re going to throw strikes, they’re going to change speeds, they’re going to move the ball all around. They get people out. They may not strike out as many people as some other relievers, but they know how to get outs.”
Sounds like Girardi would like to keep them, doesn’t it?
The question now is whether the Phillies can open enough spots on the 40-man roster for Kintzler and Watson, in addition to reserve outfielder Matt Joyce and possibly center fielder Odúbel Herrera. Rondón, who hasn’t pitched as well this spring, may be the odd man out.
Do the Phillies choose experience (Kintzler/Watson) over youth (Coonrod/Romero), or some combination? Do they keep one multiple-inning reliever or two?
In a few days, they’ll come up with answers.