Coming into the season, we knew the Phillies front office set one major piece of the team for 2017 and 2017 only: The bullpen. Everything else was open tryouts that just happened to last 162 games.
While the relief corps was wildly improved from the 2016 version, if only by having a slight pulse, that improvement nonetheless came by adding veterans with low-risk, one-year/tradeable contracts. While Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit were big improvements from the dregs of 2016, it was not the club’s intention to keep them around past this season. If they started 2018 on the team, something went wrong.
So the Phillies started from scratch, and now we can see the form of the 2018 bullpen taking shape, especially with the recent promotion of Victor Arano. And heaven help us, it doesn’t look half bad. It actually looks … wait, I’m going to say it … formidable.
But, it also might be true.
A controllable unit
The key to a great bullpen in today’s baseball is young, controllable talent. While that’s the key to any position, really, it’s much more feasible and workable in the bullpen. And if you can keep that young pen together long enough, when it comes time for them to get paid, they don’t command franchise-altering money like the Nationals are about to face with Bryce Harper.
And right now, the Phillies have young, controllable talent – for the next four years, no less – in the pen that seems to be maturing before our eyes. It may even be creating a front office problem in wondering whether the team has to go out and cherry-pick from the scrap heap again this winter, or whether they just stay put and work with what they’ve got.
If they work with what they’ve got, it’s a stable of mid-level prospects, young relievers and one curious converted starter that could be the next coming of peak Rheal Cormier going into 2018. And heaven help us, it’s pretty promising. Here’s a quick look at what the bullpen could look like in 2018 based on what the Phillies have right now:
Victor Arano: Back in March, I wrote that I had a funny feeling that future closer candidate Arano would be up in 2017 despite starting in Reading. That plan seemed to go out the window when he missed the first three months or so with an elbow injury, but this was obviously the plan for the Phillies, no matter what. Despite predictable regression stats in 2017 (way more hits per nine, way less Ks per nine), the Phillies decided to let him ride out the season in Reading and this week brought him up to the big club as an easy add since he needed to be put on the 40-man roster after this season. If he impresses – and I believe he will – he’ll be here in 2018, even if he doesn’t start the year here. 2018 bullpen role: Set-up man No. 2. Future role: Closer.
Hector Neris: He looked like pooh for the first three months. He lost the zip on his splitter that made it such a great pitch in 2016, allowing hitters to sit on his fastball. And boy, did they. But something has happened over the last two months. While he hasn’t gotten back all of that zip, some of it has returned. And in those three months, Neris started to do something all big leaguers need to do at some point: he adjusted. He mixed up his pitches more, added a little life to his fastball and now looks a lot more like the pitcher from 2016 than the one that started 2017. He’ll never have elite closer stuff, but it’s the Phillies’ job to make some team think he will. Because of the diminished value from the start of this year, and because of the adjustments he’s made throughout the season, it’s probably best to bring him back for 2018 to see if his value can rise. 2018 bullpen role: Closer. Future role: Trade bait.
Adam Morgan: We’ve all already been saying it around here for a couple weeks now, but now it’s my turn … my bad. Morgan probably would have been cut from any of the 29 other organizations in baseball in June. I was begging for him to be cut. And he would certainly have earned it. But in one of the most remarkable Phillie turnarounds I can remember, he’s been just brilliant – bordering on dominant – since Aug. 1 (.418 OPS against!) and has earned the right to be the No. 1 lefty out of the pen next year. Whether this streak is sustainable or not … that’s a question for next year. In the golden era of a decade ago, the Phillies always had a shutdown lefty in the bullpen. 2018 Adam Morgan will tell us whether they’ve got another. 2018 bullpen role: Lefty No. 1. Future role: Lefty No. 2/swingman.
Ricardo Pinto: He hasn’t been able to stay away from the big inning. He’s appeared in 21 games, giving up more than one run in six of them. (Not good.) Five of them have seen him give up three or more runs. (Really not good.) But Pinto isn’t going anywhere for now, and the growing pains are going to be expected from a converted starter. Next year is a big season for Pinto. 2018 bullpen role: Last pitcher on the roster. Future role: Middle relief.
Hoby Milner: In back-to-back late-July appearances, Milner got tattooed and gave up two earned runs in games he was asked to go two innings and saw his ERA balloon to 4.66. Since then – 15.2 IP – he hasn’t given up an earned run. Mind you, he’s not putting on a Billy Wagner impersonation or anything; he’s doing it with smoke and mirrors (16 H, just 8 K), but there is something to be said for not giving up an earned run. If nothing else, it means the Phillies have their lefty No. 2 for next year locked and loaded and can put off having to pay for one at least another year. 2018 bullpen role: Lefty No. 2. Future role: Part of a trade package to improve area of need.
Luis Garcia: Quick! Who’s the Phillies’ 2018 bullpen leader in WAR? Oh, forget it, I probably gave it away. Yup, it’s Garcia and his 1.9 WAR for the year. Only Aaron Nola currently has a higher WAR on the pitching staff. And as good as Morgan and Neris have been for the last month, Garcia has been better (0.61 ERA, astounding .372 OPS vs. since Aug. 12). He’s given the Phillies two impressive and necessary things this year:
- An immediate replacement for Neshek with little drop-off.
- A possible stopgap closer-in-waiting if someone comes up with a Godfather offer in the offseason for Neris.
I’d rather not see him close; I think he’s right where he belongs. The computer models aren’t very high on Garcia, and his xFIP at 3.77 tells a different story than his current 2.54 ERA. He’s pitching to contact more this year than he ever has, but he’s also throwing more strikes (46.5 percent of his pitches in the zone, compared to a career mark of 42.2 percent). At this point, that’s all the Phillies want: someone who throws strikes and is ready to improve. The addition of a split in the offseason shows he’s ready to improve. If he gains more confidence in the split and uses it more in 2018, he could end up one of the biggest surprises of 2018. But he shouldn’t be a surprise, because he’s been so good lately. 2018 bullpen role: No. 1 setup man. Future role: He’ll probably get passed in the organizational depth chart, which makes him a good trade candidate in 2019 or 2020. Or, he could end up being the next Ryan Madson.
Edubray Ramos: He’s probably got the best pure stuff in the bullpen, but harnessing it has always been his issue. His well-earned June demotion may have lit a fire under him, since he’s also been a big part of the bullpen resurgence. He hasn’t given up a run in his last eight games (11.1 IP, 5 H, 17 K), making a solid play for a bullpen spot in 2018. 2018 bullpen role: Middle relief. Future role: Trade fodder, maybe even valuable trade chip.