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

Instant Replay: Diamondbacks 6, Phillies 1

Instant Replay: Diamondbacks 6, Phillies 1

BOX SCORE

PHOENIX -- The Phillies suffered one of their more unsightly losses of the season on Monday afternoon as they absorbed a 6-1 beating at the hands of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Rookie right-hander Nick Pivetta did not make it out of the third inning.

The Phillies won the first game of the series, 6-1, then lost the next three, scoring just four runs in the process. They went 1-6 against the Diamondbacks in the season series.

The Phils have the worst record in the majors at 24-51. They are 10-31 on the road. They are on pace for 110 losses.

Arizona is 49-28.

Starting pitching report
Pivetta (1-4) was rocked for six runs in 2 2/3 innings in his ninth big-league start. He had trouble throwing strikes — five walks — and when he threw strikes, they were often hit — seven hits.

Control has been an issue for Pivetta in the big leagues. He walked 16 in his first six starts then just three in his next two, which were both quality starts. He threw 84 pitches in his short stay Monday.

Arizona's Zack Greinke (9-4) was not particularly sharp, lasting just five innings, throwing 102 pitches and walking three, but he managed to hold the Phillies to three hits and one run while striking out five.

Bullpen report
Adam Morgan picked up Pivetta and pitched scoreless ball for 3 1/3 innings. He allowed one hit, one walk and struck out five.

Arizona's bullpen picked up four shutout innings.

At the plate
The Phils actually had some chances to get in this game, but they left two men on base in the first and sixth innings and the bases loaded in the fifth. They were just 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position.

All five of the Phillies' hits were singles.

Chris Herrmann hit a leadoff homer against Pivetta on a 95-mph fastball. Arizona scored two in the second and blew it open with three in the third, two on a single by Daniel Descalso.

Transaction
The Phillies sent struggling reliever Edubray Ramos to Triple A and recalled reliever Ricardo Pinto.

Health check
Howie Kendrick can hit, but defense is a problem. He could end up on the disabled list. Also, Jared Eickhoff will miss one more start. Updates here (see story).

Up next
The Phillies play a quick, two-game interleague series in Seattle on Tuesday and Wednesday. Here are the pitching matchups:

Tuesday night — RHP Aaron Nola (4-5, 4.32) vs. LHP James Paxton (5-2, 3.39)

Wednesday afternoon — RHP Mark Leiter Jr. (1-0, 3.60) vs. Felix Hernandez (3-2, 4.68).

Phillies Injury Update: DL possible for Kendrick; Eickhoff to miss another start

Phillies Injury Update: DL possible for Kendrick; Eickhoff to miss another start

PHOENIX — Howie Kendrick was not in the Phillies' starting lineup for a fifth straight day on Monday because of a hamstring problem that, as the player said, "hasn't gotten any better, but it hasn't gotten any worse either."

Kendrick can pinch-hit — he, in fact, had hits in the role on Friday and Sunday — but playing defense is another matter.

"I kind of stinks because I can function, I can still hit, but as far as getting up to full speed and exploding the way I'd like to, it's still restricting me," he said.

Kendrick's ability to hit — not to mention his .361 batting average in 122 at-bats — makes him a prime candidate to serve as the designated hitter when the Phillies open a two-game interleague series Tuesday night in Seattle. But as far as playing second base when the Phillies return to National League action Friday night in New York …

That's the issue.

"The trouble with defense you’re exploding with every play, especially up the middle," Kendrick said. "I just don’t feel as comfortable exploding off it every time. As far as hitting and pinch-hitting goes you can govern that a little more when you run. You can control the rate of speed, but as far as defense you have to react to the ball."

Kendrick could end up on the disabled list if he's not ready to play defense by Friday night.

"That’s something we talked about, but I don’t know what’s going to happen yet," he said. "We’ll see."

Kendrick missed six weeks earlier this season with an abdominal injury.

In other health matters, pitcher Jerad Eickhoff will remain on the disabled list and Mark Leiter Jr. will make a second start on Wednesday in Seattle. Leiter filled in for Eickhoff on Friday night and pitched six shutout innings in his first big-league start.

Eickhoff believes he has completely recovered from an upper-back strain.

"I think they just want to err on the side of caution," he said. "I feel like I could throw Wednesday, but in all honestly, maybe that would be too quick. We'd rather be safe than sorry and finish the season strong and not risk a setback. So if we can knock this thing out with three or four more days, that's the way to go."

Eickhoff has felt good in bullpen workouts but has not reached game intensity. It's possible he could make a minor-league rehab start later this week before returning to the rotation next week.