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

Ruben Amaro Jr. keeps tabs on prospects from the pivotal Hamels trade from afar

Ruben Amaro Jr. keeps tabs on prospects from the pivotal Hamels trade from afar

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Even though he's been gone for 18 months and now wears a Boston Red Sox uniform, Ruben Amaro Jr. still has skin in the Phillies' rebuild.

Amaro was the Phillies' general manager in July 2015 when the team sent Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman to the Texas Rangers for a package that included five prospects, some who have already contributed in the major leagues and others that are knocking on the door.

And though his professional concern these days is coaching first base for Red Sox, Amaro still sneaks an occasional peek at how those prospects are progressing.

"Absolutely," he said before the Phillies and Red Sox played Saturday afternoon (see story). "It's human nature.

"It seems like they're doing OK. I think eventually they will all be contributors in the big leagues. If you get five of those guys to contribute in the big leagues, I think that's a pretty good trade."

The Phillies got three right-handed pitchers, Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher and Jake Thompson, in that deal, as well as catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams.

Thompson, Alfaro and Williams will be part of a prospect-studded Triple A Lehigh Valley team this season, and all three could be regulars in the majors in a year. Asher is still a candidate to make this year's big-league club in the bullpen.

Eickhoff, of course, is already a stalwart on the club. The 26-year-old right-hander led the starting staff in starts (33), innings (197 1/3) and ERA (3.65) last season. His mark of 1.92 walks per nine innings was fourth-best among National League starting pitchers last season.

Earlier this week, manager Pete Mackanin named Jeremy Hellickson his opening day starter. Hellickson called it "a great honor," then admitted that he thought Eickhoff deserved it more.

Eickhoff has been called a throw-in in the Hamels trade.

In fact, the pitcher himself used that phrase recently.

Amaro set the record straight.

"He wasn't a throw-in," the former GM said.

In terms of upside, Eickhoff might have ranked fourth in the deal behind Alfaro, Williams and Thompson, but he was a guy the Phillies invested many scouting hours in, a guy they wanted.

"He was an important part of it because he was one of the closest to getting to the big leagues as a starter and we needed guys from the upper levels because we didn't have a lot of them in starting pitching," Amaro said.

Amaro and Rangers GM Jon Daniels worked on the Hamels deal for months before pulling the trigger at July 2015 trade deadline.

Eickhoff had popped on the Phillies' radar when scout Charley Kerfeld watched him throw on a back field at the Rangers' minor-league complex. Scouts Dewey Colbert and Bart Braun also saw him.

"All of our guys saw him," Amaro said. "Charley saw him a lot. Dewey and Bart saw him. We had multiple looks on him and everybody else in that deal. We had quality recommendations.

"He wasn't one of (Texas') top 10 guys. But that's what good scouting is all about.

"After we made the trade, I talked to Jon Daniels about it and he said Eickhoff was the guy he was most pissed off about moving because he loved his character and the way he went about his business. He told me, 'I wish you would have substituted somebody else for Eickhoff.'"

Eickhoff actually came to the majors when Amaro was still the Phillies' GM. Amaro was let go between the time Eickhoff made his fourth and fifth starts.

Amaro peeked at the box scores after Eickhoff's starts last season.

Was he surprised by Eickhoff's performance?

"With the amount of innings he had, absolutely," he said. "But that's a great credit to him.

"Eickhoff has something that's different from other guys. He's got that thing that you need as a major league pitcher to be successful. He's got that internal drive and he's got (guts). That's big. You can't measure that with a protractor.

"Other things can be measured with a protractor. That one can't.

"From my brief time with him and from talking to other people, I know he wants to be good. You can tell he's got something in there."

With all of this going for him, why was Eickhoff rated fourth in the deal?

"Ceiling," Amaro said. "When you talk about ceiling, overall stuff, Thompson was one of those guys who had a higher ceiling. But ceilings, obviously, can change when a guy gets to the big leagues.

"We had a lot of internal debates about how guys lined up in this trade."

In the months leading up to the deal, the Phillies sought Alfaro and power-hitting outfielder Nomar Mazara, who hit 20 homers as a 21-year-old rookie for the Rangers last season.

"Mazara was about as untouchable as you can get," Amaro said. "Real high-ceiling guy who we liked the most probably along with Alfaro.

"We talked for a long time. It got to the point where we would not do the deal without Alfaro. We had to get 'a guy' and everyday catcher is such a crucial position. As far as the position guys, he was the most crucial."

The Phillies wanted an outfield bat in the deal, as well. With Mazara not in play, they focused on Williams and Lewis Brinson, a prospect who the Rangers sent to Milwaukee in last summer's deal for catcher Jonathan Lucroy.

"There was a lot of discussion about Williams and Brinson," Amaro said. "We liked them both. We thought that Williams was closer at the time and we really wanted guys that were close and we liked the way (Williams) swung the bat."

The final verdict on Amaro's watershed trade with the Rangers is still years away. Hamels has helped Texas get to the postseason the last two seasons and helps fuel that club's big dreams this season.

The Phillies' haul in the deal is still percolating and the team hopes it one day comes together as a fine brew.

And if it does, Ruben Amaro Jr. can feel some satisfaction. He's no longer a Phillie, but he has some skin in the team's rebuild.

Phillies 3, Red Sox 3: Bullpen auditions continue with personnel meeting looming

Phillies 3, Red Sox 3: Bullpen auditions continue with personnel meeting looming

BOX SCORE

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Phillies officials have a big personnel powwow on Sunday and one of the matters that will be discussed is who gets the final two bullpen jobs.

With evaluation time dwindling, the Phils used Saturday's game against the Boston Red Sox as an opportunity to look at Alec Asher, Adam Morgan and Joely Rodriguez, all candidates to win a job in the bullpen.

"They all got a lot of work," manager Pete Mackanin said after the Phillies played to a 3-3 tie with the Red Sox.

The right-hander Asher worked three innings and gave up three hits and two runs.

The lefty Morgan worked three innings and allowed a solo homer.

The lefty Rodriguez worked two innings, gave up a hit and struck out three.

"To hold the Red Sox to three runs is pretty nice, especially in this ballpark," Mackanin said. "They had their guys in there and we held them down."

Morgan has allowed just one run over six innings his last two outings.

"He has changed speeds well last two times out," Mackanin said. "That's how he needs to pitch."

The Phillies have five spots set in their bullpen with Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris, Joaquin Benoit, Pat Neshek and Edubray Ramos. They are all right-handers. The final two spots will likely come down to Morgan, Asher, Rodriguez and Luis Garcia, who are all on the 40-man roster. That is an important consideration because the Phils would like to keep their 40-man roster subtractions to a minimum. There is an outside chance they could go with an eight-man bullpen, though that might be tough in the National League, where a full bench comes in handy. That will be discussed Sunday.

The makeup of the bench will also be discussed Sunday. Andrew Knapp's place on the 40-man roster will help his chance of being the backup catcher. Veteran catchers Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday both can opt of their contracts in the next few days if they are not going to make the club. Utility man Chris Coghlan also has an opt-out coming. Daniel Nava and Brock Stassi are also candidates for what looks like two remaining spots on the bench. Nava does not have an opt-out until June. Stassi is under control and would have to accept an assignment to the minors if he does not make the club.

Infielder Jesmuel Valentin is also still in camp. He is on the 40-man roster. The question is whether the team wants to carry the 22-year-old as an extra man or get him regular reps at second base in Triple A. Valentin is 11 for 31 (.355) this spring. He hit his fifth double on Saturday.

"He swings the bat really well from the right side," Mackanin said. "He's got some work to do from the left side. He's got good actions and instincts. In a short period of time, he's made a good impression on me and I think he can be a major-league player."

The game
The Phillies had 12 hits but scored just three runs. They have scored just 10 runs over the last four games.

"We just can't accumulate a lot of runs," Mackanin said.

The Phils were last in the majors with 610 runs last season.

The Phillies tied the game in the top of the ninth on a sacrifice fly by Coghlan.

Mackanin tried to suicide-squeeze home the go-ahead run, but Roman Quinn popped up the bunt.

Colton Murray preserved the tie with a clean bottom of the ninth.

Former Phillie Kyle Kendrick pitched six innings of two-run ball for Boston. He walked none and struck out six. Kendrick projects to open the season at Triple A, but is No. 6 on the Red Sox's starting pitching depth chart and is likely to see big-league at some point this season.

Up next
The Phillies host the Pirates on Sunday. Clay Buchholz will make the start against right-hander Josh Lindblom, who spent time with the Phillies after coming over from the Dodgers in the Shane Victorino trade in 2012.