The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Florida, on Feb. 14. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and storylines of camp.
Day 6: The bullpen
It’s not difficult to look at the Phillies' spring training roster and pinpoint the eight starting position players and the five-man starting pitching rotation.
There is a little mystery in the bullpen, however.
We know the names.
But how will the roles shake out?
Heading into this offseason, much of the talk surrounding the Phillies involved adding a bat or two to the majors’ worst offense. Eventually, the team did that by trading for Howie Kendrick and signing free-agent Michael Saunders.
But as last season ended and plans for the offseason were hatched, there was just as much talk in the front office about improving the bullpen as there was about enhancing the offense.
General manager Matt Klentak put that talk into action early in the offseason when he picked up veteran right-hander Pat Neshek in a deal with the Houston Astros.
On the eve of the winter meetings, he added another veteran in right-hander in Joaquin Benoit.
This experienced duo will join an existing core of Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos in forming the backbone of what the team hopes is an improved bullpen in 2017. Phillies relievers ranked 28th in the majors with a 5.01 ERA last year and they gave up 82 homers, second-most in the majors.
“We got down in the middle innings a lot last year and the bullpen couldn’t keep us close,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’re deeper in the ‘pen this year and we should be able to stay within striking range. That should account for a few more wins.”
The biggest question in the bullpen coming into Clearwater is who will be the closer. Gomez came out of nowhere and solved a problem with 37 saves last season, but he struggled badly in September and lost the job. Neris, who struck out 11.4 batters in 79 games last season, has the stuff — a power fastball and a baffling splitter — to do the job. So does Ramos. And Benoit has filled just about every role in the bullpen, including closer.
For now, the job appears to be Gomez’s to lose.
“I wouldn’t say it’s wide open,” Mackanin said. “I’m going to give Gomez every opportunity to show that he’s the guy that pitched the first five months and not the guy that pitched in September.”
If Gomez doesn’t nail down the job, the Phillies clearly have other candidates. Last year, Gomez did not take over the job until the first week of the regular season, after others had failed. It would not be a shock if the role does not become ironed out until the season is underway again this season.
Neshek, 36, has a funky delivery that has allowed him to be very effective against right-handed hitters in his career. He lines up for a specialty role.
Benoit, 39, has been one of the game's most consistent relievers over the last decade. Over the last seven seasons, he has a WHIP of 0.98. That’s the third-best among relievers over that span, trailing only Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel. Benoit had a tale of two seasons with Seattle and Toronto last season. He registered a 5.18 ERA in 26 games with Seattle then was traded to Toronto in July. With the Jays, he pitched 23 2/3 innings over 25 games and gave up just one run. For the season, he struck out 10.4 batters per nine innings. He missed the postseason with a torn calf muscle.
“One of the things that was appealing to us about Joaquin is he has pitched the sixth, he's pitched the seventh, he's pitched the eighth, he's pitched the ninth, and he's been good in all of those roles at various times throughout his career," Klentak said. "We feel better that we have several players in our bullpen that can compete for the ninth, the eighth, the seventh, the sixth. We made our bullpen better."
Neshek and Benoit fit the model of players that Klentak targeted this winter — veterans on short-term deals that could be trade chips in July. Other players who fit the model include Kendrick and starting pitcher Clay Buchholz. Holdover Jeremy Hellickson also fits. There’s no guarantee that there will be a market for these players, no guarantee that Klentak will be able to swing a deal, as was evidenced with Hellickson last summer. Benoit, who is making $7.5 million, could be end up being the most coveted of the Phillies’ trade candidates if he pitches well. Contending teams are always looking for affordable veteran bullpen help for the stretch drive.
The list of bullpen candidates includes familiar names such as Luis Garcia, Dalier Hinojosa, Colton Murray, Michael Mariot and former New York Met Pedro Beato, who is on a minor-league deal.
The most glaring shortcoming in the Phillies’ bullpen is a lack of left-handers. The team has just one lefty reliever, Joely Rodriguez, on the 40-man roster, and he has just 12 games of big-league experience. Veterans lefties Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos, both in camp on minor-league deals, will get a chance to make the team, and it's possible that lefty starter Adam Morgan could be used as a reliever. Also, don't rule out the possibility of Klentak adding a lefty reliever through a signing, trade or waiver claim as the spring unfolds.
Next: Day 7 – A look at the competition for bench roles