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Closer-less Phillies will flirt with Red Sox’s Craig Kimbrel, but trading for a reliever might be more likely

"Part of the fun of this offseason is we don't know which way we're going to go," GM Matt Klentak said. "It could be a starter. It could be a reliever. It could be a hitter. It could be a defender."

The Phillies have been linked to Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel.
The Phillies have been linked to Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel.Read moreJulie Jacobson / AP

CARLSBAD, Calif. — Of all the data-driven, sometimes eyebrow-raising philosophies that Gabe Kapler espoused in his first season as the Phillies' manager, there's one he believes in with absolute certainty.

"I think we showed that our bullpen can be successful without assigning specific roles," Kapler said recently. "We saw many guys pitch the ninth inning, and I don't think there's anybody in our bullpen that I wouldn't trust with the right group of matchups to pitch the ninth inning."

So, you can count out the Phillies as a player in the closer market, right?

Well, not entirely.

The Phillies must fill multiple needs this winter if they're going to achieve their goal of adding at least 10 wins to a roster that produced an 80-82 record in 2018. They could use at least one, but probably two, middle-of-the-order boppers and another starting pitcher. A closer isn't the top item on their shopping list.

But during the general managers' meetings that concluded here Wednesday, Matt Klentak reiterated he won't dismiss any idea for making the Phillies better, including the potential addition of a "true lockdown closer." That explains why the Phils were named in one report this week among teams that are interested in free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel, who has a 1.91 ERA, 333 saves and 868 strikeouts in 532 2/3 innings over nine major-league seasons, the past three for the Boston Red Sox.

"I'm not going to sit here and predict that we will add a closer," Klentak said. "But we will explore that."

Truth is, it's too early in the offseason for Klentak to rule out anything. The Phillies, after all, have wads of cash to spend in free agency and several players to offer in trades, from third baseman Maikel Franco to second baseman Cesar Hernandez and possibly center fielder Odubel Herrera. Unlike in his previous three offseasons on the job, when the team was rebuilding and therefore pursuing mostly stop-gap players on short-term contracts, Klentak can consider just about every player on the market.

"Part of the fun of this offseason is we don't know which way we're going to go," Klentak said. "It could be a starter. It could be a reliever. It could be a hitter. It could be a defender. It could be some combination of that. It could be trades. It could be free agency. To be able to consider any opportunity is exciting."

Still, it's clear how the Phillies prefer to deploy their bullpen. They had nine relievers record at least one save this season. Eleven of the team's 44 saves involved the pitcher recording more than three outs. Rookie reliever Seranthony Dominguez entered in the sixth inning twice, the seventh inning 12 times, the eighth inning 20 times and the ninth inning 19 times. He got more than three outs in 16 of his 53 appearances.

"I think that's the right way to treat a bullpen," Klentak said. "And if we can develop players with that mentality, that they're not so much used in one specific inning but rather they're utilized in particular matchups to get certain types of hitters out or in certain leverage situations, I think that's the best way for us to go about it."

Put another way: This isn't 2011, when former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. prioritized the closer position so much that he invested $50 million in a four-year contract for free agent Jonathan Papelbon. Rather than doling out more than $15 million per year for Kimbrel, the Phillies seem more inclined to trade for another late-inning arm.

One possible match: the San Diego Padres. With Kirby Yates, Craig Stammen and young lefty Matt Strahm, they have several affordable, controllable relievers. They also need help at third base and have previously shown interest in Franco. And if there was any doubt the Phillies intend to trade Franco, team president Andy MacPhail might have tipped their hand last month when he alluded to another team being able to solve Franco's inconsistency.

Extra bases

Curtailing teams' ability to steal signs via electronic means was among the top items on the GMs' agenda during their sessions this week. Many team and league officials believe increased paranoia over sign-stealing has contributed to further slowing the pace of play. … Rhys Hoskins and Carlos Santana are among the major-leaguers who traveled to Japan to face a team of Japanese all-stars. Kapler said he wasn't concerned with which positions they play. The Phillies intend to use Hoskins at both first base and left field and Santana at first base and third base next season. … Right-hander Vince Velasquez, who lives in Southern California, met Klentak for lunch on Tuesday.