Hindsight is 20-20, but pleas for the Phillies to seek more help in the pitching department came quite a bit before the start of this long-delayed 2020 season.
Even after the team spent $118 million to sign free-agent righthander Zack Wheeler, the overwhelming feeling was that the Phillies still needed to upgrade a bullpen that was forced by injuries to undergo a major overhaul in the middle of the 2019 season.
Some good free-agent relief arms were available, but the Phillies were approaching Major League Baseball’s salary tax threshold of $208 million and opted to add some veteran relievers on minor-league contracts rather than go after the most expensive arms on the market.
Nobody was forecasting the COVID-19 pandemic that would shut down the game for more than four months and limit the season to (hopefully) 60 games when general manager Matt Klentak and the Phillies’ other decision-makers were formulating the roster, but it happened, and because it happened there is an even greater emphasis on bullpens right now.
The early returns have been less than encouraging for the Phillies even though manager Joe Girardi has the reputation of being terrific at handling bullpens.
“I think I was blessed with some pretty good bullpens [in New York],” Girardi said. “I think I had some pretty good matchup guys when I was there and I also had guys who were multiple-inning guys and a couple closers all the time.”
Yeah, that Mariano Rivera guy was pretty good. But Girardi, a former catcher with an analytical mind, was also skillful at pushing the right buttons before the game got to Rivera.
“I work really hard at arranging a bullpen and putting the pieces in the right spot,” Girardi said. “I think it is one of the most important parts of my job because I believe that losing games late is devastating. I do believe this has been a challenging year to kind of put your bullpen together and get them on a roll just because of the interruptions that we’ve had.”
The fact that Girardi had less than three weeks and only three exhibition games to piece together his pen did not help matters, but the fact that Francisco Liriano, Bud Norris and Drew Storen all failed to make the expanded opening-day roster was a mark against Klentak’s attempt to build the pen with some veterans trying to recapture the relief magic they once had. Liriano was the best of the three, but he opted out, another unforeseen consequence of this COVID-19 season.
It also turned out to be a mistake to think Seranthony Dominguez could return from an arm injury that ended his 2019 season in early June. The reliever who was so electric in 2018 is now officially recovering from Tommy John surgery that will likely also cost him next season. Who knows if he’ll ever be the same again.
After seven games, the Phillies had the worst bullpen ERA (7.89) in baseball and three relievers (Ramon Rosso, Austin Davis, and Cole Irvin) with earned run averages that rival the number of points typically scored by Pat Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in a single game.
Tommy Hunter, whose first two seasons here were marred by injuries and inconsistency, once again drew the ire of fans Wednesday when he surrendered two runs without recording an out that led to a loss to the Yankees after a brilliant performance by Aaron Nola.
The incompetence of the bullpen so far is accentuated this weekend by the Atlanta Braves’ arrival at Citizens Bank Park. Unlike the Phillies, the Braves aggressively tried to improve their bullpen during the offseason, signing Will Smith away from the Giants for three years and $40 million while also retaining Chris Martin for two years and $14 million after acquiring him in a trade with Texas last season.
Even with Smith on the injured list after testing positive for COVID-19, the Braves arrived in Philadelphia with a bullpen that had a 2.69 ERA and played a major role in their 9-5 start.
The defending champion Washington Nationals also were aggressive in trying to bolster their bullpen, signing Will Harris away from Houston for three years and $24 million while retaining Daniel Hudson for two years and $11 million. Hudson played a huge role in stabilizing Washington’s bullpen down the stretch last season and was also sensational in the postseason.
It’s easy to forget that the Nationals bullpen finished last season with a National League-worst 5.68 ERA, a weakness that was offset by one of the best starting rotations in the game.
“They were a much better bullpen at the end of the year than they were at the beginning of the year when they added some pieces and they got some pieces back,” Girardi said. “You need to get 27 outs. Sometimes only 21 the way this season is going. How you get them doesn’t really matter. You just have to find a way to do it efficiently.”
The Phillies’ search for that formula is ongoing, but there is hope. Hector Neris is a legitimate closer and the team actually has strength in the number of quality lefthanders Girardi can throw at an opposing team out of the pen. That group is led by Adam Morgan and Jose Alvarez, but it could be bolstered if Ranger Suarez can soon return to last year’s form after opening the season on the injured list because of COVID-19. Suarez’s future could still be as a starter, but he is needed more this season in the pen, which is where he had success last season.
It’s also too soon to give up on Hunter, who is quite capable of having good stretches out of the pen. Two years ago, he posted a 2.88 ERA over the final two months of the season. Nick Pivetta, if he embraces the role, has the arm needed to be a late-inning reliever for a long time.
The bullpen cast is also likely to change for a couple of reasons. One is Spencer Howard, who will make his major-league debut as a starter during the Phillies’ doubleheader against the Braves Sunday. With five more doubleheaders in the Phillies’ future, he will make more starts this season, but it’s possible he could also help out in the bullpen, too. It’s also possible that Howard remains in the rotation and Vince Velasquez moves to a bullpen role. Performance will dictate those decisions.
The biggest X-factor for the Phillies is David Robertson, a reliever who helped Girardi win a lot of games with the Yankees and a World Series in 2009. At the moment, Robertson is trying to regain arm strength by throwing at the Phillies’ spring-training site in Clearwater, Fla. He had a 22-pitch bullpen Friday and, according to a team source, is throwing all his pitches.
He expects to return and could be the best trade-deadline addition the Phillies make.
“I would love that,” Girardi said. “I would love that.”