Countdown to Clearwater: A look at how bullpen roles could shake out

Countdown to Clearwater: A look at how bullpen roles could shake out

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

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

 

BOX SCORE

This is what the Phillies could look like some day, maybe in a year or two, when the rebuild has moved further down the road and the club is approaching contender's status.

Maikel Franco clubbed three hits, including a grand slam, and Vince Velasquez pitched his best game of the young season to lead the Phillies to a 7-4 victory over the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday night (see Instant Replay).

The win was the Phillies' fifth straight as they inched over the .500 mark at 10-9 and it offered a glimpse of the tantalizing tools of two of the team's most enigmatic young players — Franco and Velasquez. Both players are 24 years old. Both have had individual highs and lows in a Phillies uniform. Both have the ability to be cornerstone talents for the franchise — if they can put together more nights like this one.

"It's a long season and it doesn't happen overnight," said manager Pete Mackanin, acknowledging the ups and downs that each player has had in the early part of this season and before.

It was just last week that Franco was riding a career-worst 0-for-22 slump that dragged his batting average to .145.

On Wednesday night, he stroked three hits — he had two hard-hit singles to go with his grand slam — to push his average to .203, not good but moving in the right direction.

Even as he struggled, Franco continued to hit balls hard and produce runs. He now has 20 RBIs, which is just one shy of the NL leaders. He also has four homers, including two grand slams.

It's no secret that new hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to get Franco to stop pulling off the ball. From Day 1 of spring training, Stairs has had Franco working on driving the ball to the middle of the field. That's just what Franco did three times Wednesday night. His first hit, a single to center in the second inning, set the tone for his night. His grand slam came on a 2-2 fastball from lefty Wei-Yin Chen in the third inning.

"That was Matt Stairs' big rallying cry for Maikel — try to use the big part of the field and not pull everything," Mackanin said. "He still has it in him where he'll pull his head off the ball, but I think with his type of power, he can hit a ball to center field or right field out of the ballpark. Once that sinks in, he's really going to take off. He's starting to look a lot better." 

Two pitches before Franco lined the grand slam over the wall in left center, he lost his helmet while hacking at a slow breaking ball. It was the type of out-of-control swing that Stairs is trying to eliminate. Two pitches later, Franco gathered himself and hit the grand slam with a smooth swing.

That was progress.

And so is this: He's only lost his helmet on a swing one time this season.

"At the time, I just told myself, 'Calm down, relax, don't try to do too much. Just see the ball and put good contact on it,'" Franco said.

"I think last year I lost my helmet like 20 or 25 times," he added with a chuckle. "I'm working on it."

Velasquez is also working on things. He is trying to harness his power stuff and improve his economy of pitches so he can stay in games longer. He'd lasted just four, five and six innings, respectively, while running high pitch counts in his first three starts. He made some improvements in his last outing at New York last week and took another step forward in this one. He pitched 6 1/3 innings, scattered six hits and three runs, walked two and struck out three. The strikeout total was way down from the 10 he struck out in four innings in his first start of the season. But Mackanin was pleased with the results and the improved efficiency. Velasquez threw 97 pitches, 68 of which were strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 26 batters and that was important to his success.

"Even though he's not striking people out like we know he can and will, he's using all of his pitches and he got us into that seventh inning, which was huge," Mackanin said. "I think he's trying to pitch to more contact and not trying to make perfect pitches and strike everybody out with perfect pitches.

"I think once he puts that all together, he'll have that total ensemble working for him and know when to pitch soft and when to throw hard. He's making good improvements."

And so are the Phillies as a group. They hit three home runs in the game and the bullpen did an excellent job, especially Joely Rodriguez and Joaquin Benoit, who combined on five outs (see story)

Five straight wins is nothing to sneeze at. The Phillies have suddenly become fun. They go for a sixth straight win Thursday.

Joely Rodriguez 'a real bonus' to Phillies' bullpen

Joely Rodriguez 'a real bonus' to Phillies' bullpen

Vince Velasquez might have had the best outing of his season Wednesday night, but the Phillies' bullpen delivered against a tough Miami Marlins lineup. 

Hector Neris nearly had a scoreless ninth inning until Adeiny Hechavarria whacked in a run off a single.

But Neris struck out Derek Dietrich swinging to end the game, 7-4, and extend the Phillies' winning streak to five games (see game story).

"We're going to continue to do the same thing we've been doing," relief pitcher Joely Rodriguez said. "We're not going to change nothing because we're doing well now."

Velasquez got the Phillies to the seventh inning, but manager Pete Mackanin pulled the right-hander once Hechavarria smacked a double that knocked in J.T. Realmuto to make the game 5-3.

Rodriguez replaced Velasquez to face Ichiro Suzuki. He retired Suzuki on a line drive to Maikel Franco and got another huge out on Dee Gordon to get the Phillies out of a squeeze late in the game.

"Joely has done a great job his last five outings, that's a real pleasant surprise," Mackanin said. "We knew that he had the ability to potentially do that. All he has to do with his stuff is throw strikes in the situations that he comes in. And he can be very effective as he should tonight. That's a real bonus for us."

In his past six games, including Wednesday night, Rodriguez has pitched six straight scoreless games. He also has a combined four strikeouts and threw less than nine pitches in four of those games.  

Prior to the six-game streak, Rodriguez gave up a combined seven runs and 10 hits in four appearances, but he said he's been working on his mechanics.

"I have more confidence to throw the ball to home plate with my glove in the chest," Rodriguez said. "That helped me a lot to throw the ball and have a more consistent strike zone." 

Even with Rodriguez getting the Phillies out of the seventh inning, they still had to overcome the Marlins' top of the lineup in the eighth. Miami ranks seventh in the majors in runs per game with 4.78. 

Giancarlo Stanton was just starting to find his swing entering the game. The Marlins' cleanup hitter was 9 for 17 over his last four games, including four homers and seven RBIs. 

But when he faced Joaquin Benoit in the top of eighth, Stanton grounded out to Freddy Galvis to retire the side. Stanton was 0 for 3 on the night in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, while Benoit threw five strikes on eight pitches in the eighth. 

"We are a group in the bullpen," Rodriguez said. "We talk to each other, support each other and do the best we can when we go to the mound and try to help the team get a win."