Monday afternoon, Phillies fans were treated to almost everything they could have wanted from a season opener. The team won, the offense showed patience, power and selectivity, and the pitching was strong for eight innings.
The one dark spot came in the ninth inning, when closer Jeanmar Gomez saw a breezy 4-1 lead dwindle to a margin of only a run. Scott Schebler led off with a line-drive single and, after a strikeout and a fly out, Scooter Gennett homered to plate two runs. The final out of the game came when Billy Hamilton flew out to deep center.
Mackanin was candid in his comments to CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury after the game:
“I’m concerned about it,” Mackanin said, plainly.
He added that, according to Salisbury, “Gomez was his closer ‘for now,’ and ‘He’s going to get every opportunity to do the job. If he doesn’t, we’re going to take a look at it.'”
While Mackanin was clear that the job is still Gomez’s for now, he is not opposed to using other pitchers or yanking the 29-year-old when he isn’t hitting his spots.
The speculation about Gomez’s future in the role would seem unfair if it were about only one day’s performance, but there were signs even last year that he wasn’t the best fit to close. Opponents hit .286 off him in 2016, which was seventh-worst among qualified relievers and nearly tied with Brett Oberholtzer, whose 4.83 ERA led to him being designated for assignment last August. Gomez’s second-half ERA was 8.33.
His initial placement in the role is owed largely to the Phillies bullpen being a hodgepodge of question marks and table scraps to start 2016. While his 1.80 ERA and .258 opponent wOBA through April 2016 made him a deserving recipient, his competition was light. The Phillies opened the year with a bullpen of Gomez, David Hernandez, Dalier Hinojosa, Hector Neris, Brett Oberholtzer, James Russell and Daniel Stumpf.
Of that group, only Neris is remembered fondly. Hernandez had an undesirable first-half ERA of 4.50; Hinojosa wound up in the minors for most of the year and was bumped from the 40-man roster; Oberholtzer was designated; Russell, too, was designated, and before May; and Stumpf was served an 80-day PED suspension in April.
Mackanin’s willingness to entertain alternatives to Gomez speaks to the strides the bullpen has made in just a year — progress that was on display in Monday’s win. In three innings, the trifecta of Joaquin Benoit, Edubray Ramos, and Neris allowed only a pair of baserunners, striking out four batters in three innings. All three should be featured heavily in the year to come.
Pat Neshek, too, is a capable upgrade from last year. While he wasn’t used on Monday, he’s coming off a solid appearance in the World Baseball Classic and has earned a 137 ERA+ in his 10-year career.
While the distinction of being a closer is relatively arbitrary, especially as teams increasingly select a reliever based on in-game leverage rather than inning assignments, it’s still a distinction of which many are mindful. Regardless of preconceived roles, though, the fact of the matter is that Gomez has a lot more support in the bullpen than he did last April — and a lot more competition.