Maybe rookie Connor Brogdon turns out to be the “wild card” that pitching coach Bryan Price knows the Phillies need if they’re going to bolster the worst bullpen in baseball. Or maybe Ranger Suarez and David Robertson will ride to the rescue after coming back from COVID-19 and Tommy John elbow surgery, respectively.
But there might be another solution for the Phillies to find relief — and he’s sitting in the visiting bullpen this week.
Mychal Givens isn’t the Baltimore Orioles’ closer, at least not now. He is, however, the most-accomplished and highest-paid reliever on a team that, despite its surprising record (8-7 entering Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park), isn’t likely to make the playoffs, even with an expanded 2020 field.
Like so much about pandemic baseball, making a trade is more complicated than it used to be. But there is a deadline — Aug. 31, to be specific — for general managers to swing deals, and in a normal year, the Orioles’ Mike Elias would be getting a bunch of texts and calls about Givens.
For one thing, the 30-year-old right-hander hasn’t allowed a run in six innings, a minuscule sample size that, nevertheless, might be enough in this short schedule to signal that he has rebounded from a rough 2019, in which his ERA rose to 4.57. For another, his average fastball velocity is 94 mph, according to Statcast, in line with his career average. He’s also using his changeup and slider more often and hasn’t given up a hit on either pitch this season.
Givens also has a track record. Since 2015, he’s one of 29 relievers to strike out at least 10.5 batters per nine innings and post a 3.40 ERA or lower in a minimum of 100 innings. His career numbers — 3.35 ERA, 395 strikeouts in 328 innings, and a 29.4% strikeout rate — are almost identical to Phillies closer Hector Neris (3.34 ERA, 399 strikeouts in 315 innings, 30.3% strikeout rate).
Cloning Neris would be a good start to improving a bullpen that yielded 40 earned runs in 35 1/3 innings for a 10.19 ERA entering Wednesday night. Short of that, Givens is a decent carbon copy. He's also under club control through 2021 at slightly more than his $3.23 million full-season salary for this year.
That would push the Phillies’ payroll over the $208 million luxury-tax threshold. But general manager Matt Klentak has maintained since spring training and reiterated last month that the tax is “not a hard barrier for us.”
“The comments that I made or [managing partner] John Middleton made in spring training about the luxury tax would still apply today,” Klentak said. “I continue to believe that if our team is in position to go to the postseason, that our owners will support” paying the tax.
But what sort of return could the Orioles expect for Givens? It all depends on what the trade market looks like in 2 1/2 weeks — and that is still anyone’s guess.
A playoff field that has grown from 10 teams to 16 figures to give more clubs hope of reaching the postseason, a condition that would favor sellers. Then again, uncertainty over whether the season will actually be completed could make trading away assets an even dicier-than-usual proposition.
Also, teams don’t have as many eyes on opposing players, because scouts aren’t permitted entry to ballparks. And without a minor-league season, many prospects that would be packaged in trades aren’t playing.
"I have no idea what's going to happen with the trade market," Elias told Baltimore media on a recent Zoom call. "I don't know what to expect this year. I don't think anybody does. If ever there was a trade market that was impossible to predict, I think we've found it."
Elias has already pulled off one trade involving a reliever. Two weeks ago, he dealt veteran lefty Richard Bleier to the Marlins for a player to be named, which means only that the player the Orioles will receive is a minor leaguer who wasn’t part of Miami’s training-camp pool.
But the trade sent a message that the Orioles are open for business.
“With our position right now as a rebuilding team, we’re listening to everything,” Elias said. “Particularly with a veteran reliever like [Bleier], there’s interest from other clubs, and we explore it.”
One thing we know: Givens has been on the Phillies’ radar before, as recently as last summer. Klentak has a history with him, too. He was the Orioles’ director of baseball operations when Baltimore drafted Givens as a shortstop in 2009.
Pursuing him again would be a step toward improving a bullpen that is threatening to make whatever chances the Phillies have of ending an eight-year playoff drought vanish like a late-inning lead.