With bullpen additions, Phillies could be daring

Pat Neshek in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Manny Machado rumors. Jake Arrieta whispers. Even idle chatter about a Tyler Chatwood offer before he signed with Chicago. The Phillies have been all over the Winter Meetings water cooler, because a big-market team with plenty money to burn typically gets that kind of attention.

But while everyone was going on and on about the chances of the Phils extending Machado and pulling off a wild winter trade, Matt Klentak and the front office have been adding pieces … to the bullpen.

Pat Neshek is on for two years and a third-year option. Now Tommy Hunter is reportedly on for two, as well. They join Hector Neris, Luis Garcia, Adam Morgan, Victor Arano, Edubray Ramos and Hoby Milner, among other options, in what’s now being considered a relatively deep relief corps.

From the surface it looks like the Phils are improving a group that, with a 4.18 ERA last season, was middle of the pack. It looks like they’re gearing up for the future with these long-term deals, that they’re hoping to have the ‘pen set while the core develops a bit further and the starting rotation shakes out.

Deeper, though, there’s more to the fact that the Phillies have just awarded multi-year deals to two third-tier relievers.

A new approach

Matt Gelb today reported that the Phillies were not players for top free agent starter Jake Arrieta. In that piece he revealed some of the interior thinking by Klentak and the front office: a 13-man pitching staff, designed to create an advantage, as the Phils are likely to run out there starters who have trouble facing lineups a third time in a game.

This makes a lot of sense. Vince Velasquez wasn’t very good in 2017, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio declined rapidly from 2.62 the first time around to 1.43 the third time around. The opponent batting average, meanwhile, rose, from .254 to .311. Nick Pivetta wasn’t great the first time against an order (.291/.368/.532, 2.79 K/9), but he was arguably worse the third time around (.321/.384/.505, 2 K/9).

Jerad Eickhoff is the king of the bad third time around – opponents were .230/.324/.410 the first time around, while they went .333/.383/.515 the third time around. That strikeout-to-walk ratio? 2.26 to 1.83.

Shortening starters’ outings purposefully is starting to grow legs. This 2015 article points out that teams should be paying attention to the third time around trend. The Astros tried a “tandem” idea in their minor league system in 2013, which two pitchers are paired up each time out, typically filling seven to eight innings. The Padres talked about doing it in 2017. And eight-man bullpens are much more in vogue these days, as teams consider preserving players for the long haul.

The Phillies are setting up to have an eight-man group in 2018. The rotation is still unknown, though one can surmise Nola, Velasquez, Pivetta and Eickhoff are clubhouse leaders to be part of it somehow, sometime. It’s possible the coaching staff is going to work with some of those guys to maximize their stuff over 60 good pitches. Get them through the order twice, get five innings out of it, then move to the bullpen.

And that bullpen has a diverse set of arms. There’s velocity (Garcia throws 97 and Hunter throws 96 with the fastball), there’s a sidearmer (Neshek), there are valuable pitches (Garcia’s fastball, Neris’ splitter, Neshek and Ramos’ sliders), soft-contact wizards (Milner), specialists against lefties (Morgan, Milner) and against righties (Neshek, Garcia).

Paving a path

Moreover, none of these relievers are Wade Davis or Kenley Jansen. These are mid-level, third-tier relievers capable of moving in and out and all over the place in a bullpen. There’s no obvious closer besides Neris, and that’s only because he was closer in Pete Mackanin’s bullpen last year. And there’s no multi-innings relief ace, the kind of pitcher that has been in vogue in recent years. This is an opportunity for the Phillies to try something new and different, and with the multi-year deals set for Neshek and Hunter, this is a group that could be fully intact through 2019.

It’ll be interesting to see how Gabe Kapler uses his bullpen. Will Neris be the closer, or will there be a closer at all? Will Kapler shuffle pitchers in and out of high-leverage situations (Neshek and Neris were by far the best in them out of the current group)?

Beyond that, is it possible the team thinks way outside the box, giving Neshek or Arano, for instance, a full nine batters to face before pulling him? Will the Phils think about a tandem staff?

Whatever the case, the Phillies are building an intriguing bullpen for 2018.

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