As we head into the new year, we now have a pretty good idea of the team that General Manager Matt Klentak wanted to assemble for opening day. Much to Pete Mackanin’s liking, the 36-year-old executive nabbed a “professional hitter” in Howie Kendrick, signed and acquired quality arms in Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholz respectively, and made the ‘pen a top priority by signing and trading for established vets.
In most cases, people remember what you do last. Someone may go 1-for-5, but if that one hit was a walkoff grand slam, no one talks about the four previous at-bats.
Thus, the Phillies’ hitting woes were overshadowed by the putrid display put on by their bullpen in September, which probably stuck with Klentak in October and early November. Hours after the Cubbies hoisted the World Series trophy in dramatic fashion, the Phillies, quietly in the background, made their first move to bolster their roster for 2017 … and it happened to be in the bullpen.
The ‘pen was the team’s strength the first two months of the season, compiling an ERA of 3.81 in April and May. The series most indicative of the Phils bullpen on their “A” game was a three-game set in late April that led to a sweep of the eventual AL Champions. The Phils won each game by one run, and in total, the bullpen tossed 12 innings and allowed just one run themselves. Contributions included the normal likes of Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez, but even Andrew Bailey and Elvis Araujo caught lightning in bottle. Of course, Bailey never returned to his early-career form thanks in part to a slew of injuries, and Araujo, not experiencing much success in the bigs, faltered sooner rather than later, and each were demoted later in the year. Each month seemed to get progressively worse as the bullpen’s September ERA finished at 7.88. Yikes.
Klentak is betting that won’t happen again. The first addition to the team, former all star Pat Neshek, is in the discussion as one of the game’s most effective relievers. Over the last five years, the submariner has hurled 229 innings and surrendered just 176 hits – good enough for a 2.75 ERA. Neshek can be relied on as a trustworthy option for Pete Mackanin.
Klentak made another – which on the surface seemed head-scratching – move by bringing in 39-year-old Joaquin Benoit. Why a 39-year old? Age is just a number when your fastball is topping out at 96.4 mph. Benoit has been even better than Neshek over the last six season, tossing 427 innings while allowing an astoundingly low 284 hits. Benoit’s WHIP under one and an ERA at 2.40 over that span gives the skipper another trustworthy arm.
Hector Neris is downright filthy when his split is working. Neris struck out 102 batters in in 80 innings of work, contributing to a 2.58 ERA. Neris threw his split more than half the time, and opponents hit just .155 against the right-hander’s signature pitch. Neris and his split may move into the closer’s role this season.
Jeanmar Gomez, as cool and calm as he did, took the bull by the horns and became the team’s closer in mid-April. Gomez filled in admirably, nailing down 37 games before his September implosion inflated his ERA to 4.85. With Neris possibly taking over the reins as closer, Gomez will be used less in lower-pressured situations, hopefully sustaining success into and through September.
Edubray Ramos emerged last season as another young arm Pete Mackanin can trust. A guy who can fire it as high as 98 mph to compliment a devastating slider coming in at 83 can make hitters look foolish. In a stretch of 33 appearances from July to late September, Ramos posted a 2.20 ERA and struck almost a batter an inning. Ramos is just 24 years old and has the stuff to be a closer down the line.
Every bullpen needs it – at least one lefty will come in situationally at end of a game to match up with a slugger like Bryce Harper. And the Phillies have that in Joely Rodriguez. Another hard throwing lefty who tosses at a three-quarter angle, Rodriguez makes it tough on hitters, especially lefties. The lefty should be able to build on his 2.79 September ERA.
Do you see a recurring theme? With the exception of Rodriguez, all have had a sustained period of success as a reliever. Some longer than others, of course, but nonetheless, it’s still success. With a capable starting rotation, Mackanin can now walk to the mound with confidence, knowing the reliever he selected should come in and get the job done. Mackanin will have trouble making a selection – in a good way – because he now has a plethora of options.
If the Phillies hold a lead after six, expect that lead to be a win, because, on paper, the unquestioned strength of the 2017 Phillies is the bullpen.