Phillies Nation Mailbag With Tim Kelly

Phillies Mailbag: What will the bullpen look like in 2019?

Tommy Hunter figures to return to the Phillies in 2019. (Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons)

Each weekend, Phillies Nation Editorial Director Tim Kelly will answer reader questions as part of the Phillies Nation Mailbag. Questions can be submitted by tweeting at @PhilliesNation@TimKellySports or e-mailing your question to Let’s get to this week’s question.

What members of the Phillies 2018 bullpen will return in 2019 and what external additions are possible? – Christine in South Jersey

Predicting what a team’s bullpen will look like at the start of Spring Training is often difficult. Predicting it prior to the general manager’s meeting may be an exercise in futility. But, for the sake of this question, I’ll indulge.

Let’s start with the obvious: Seranthony Dominguez is going to be with the Phillies in 2019, and probably long after that. We can debate exactly how Gabe Kapler and the Phillies should utilize the 23-year-old. What we can’t debate is that Dominguez – who posted a 2.95 ERA, 2.85 FIP and 1.3 fWAR in 58 innings in 2018 – has electric stuff. He may have the best arsenal of any homegrown reliever in Phillies history, though Ryan Madson and Ken Giles probably would beg to differ.

Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter – both of whom are entering the second and final year of lucrative free-agent deals – presumably will be with the Phillies as well. The same likely goes for 23-year-old Victor Arano, who posted a 2.73 ERA in 60 games in 2018.

That’s already four arms. Though for a majority of the season the Phillies will likely carry eight relievers, there’s a good chance, due to how off days work in the first couple of weeks, that they’ll have nine relievers on their Opening Day roster. That’s what they did in 2018. Dominguez is probably the only one with a 100 percent certainty to be in the Opening Day bullpen, but there appears to be four names that are pretty certain to be in the Phillies bullpen when the Atlanta Braves come to Citizens Bank Park on March 28 to kick off the 2019 season.

Four other arms going into a category that we’ll call “the usual suspects.” Luis Garcia, Hector Neris, Adam Morgan and Edubray Ramos have been mainstays in the Phillies bullpen the past two seasons. All four members of the quartet have at times been excellent. None of the four have been consistently reliable enough not to make at least a few appearances at Triple-A Lehigh Valley in the past two seasons. Ramos – who has one minor league option left and posted a 2.32 ERA in 52 games at the major league level in 2018 – figures to be in the picture in next season. The other three are all out of minor league options, and given how frequently names and faces changed in the bullpen during Kapler’s first year at the helm, it stands to reason that the Phillies aren’t excited about that.

Garcia, who will be 32 in January, could very well be in the discussion with Dominguez, Madson and Giles for the best pure repertoire of a reliever that’s come up through the Phillies system (though he wasn’t initially signed by the Phillies.) Kapler actually mentioned in his introductory press conference how excited he was to have Garcia at his disposal. And then Garcia finished the season with a 6.07 ERA in 59 games. Even though some of his peripheral numbers weren’t nearly as bad, you got the feeling during September, a month in which Garcia posted an ERA of 21.00, that things had run their course in Philadelphia. Him being out of options makes you think he won’t be back in 2019, though he does have two arbitration years left.

In president Andy MacPhail’s season-ending press conference, MacPhail talked about how Neris was one of his favorite people in the organization. MacPhail also wondered aloud which Neris – the one that posted a 6.90 ERA before the All-Star Break or the one that posted a 2.04 ERA after the All-Star Break – was the real Neris. The 29-year-old will become eligible for arbitration for the first time in 2019. He has closing experience, which has yielded mixed results. It feels like there’s a 50/50 chance that he’ll return to the Phillies in 2019, though he’ll be pitching somewhere in the major leagues next season.

Morgan, a converted starter, had a season not that different from Neris. Though Neris’ season featured a detour to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, Morgan was out of options to open the 2018 season, so he was left to work things out with the big league club. He did just that, posting a 2.55 ERA in 28 games after the All-Star Break. Prior to the All-Star Break, however, he posted a 5.11 ERA. His 2017 season wasn’t that much different, as he posted a 2.73 ERA after the All-Star Break, but struggled with a 6.23 ERA in 11 games prior to the midsummer classic. The Phillies will very likely carry at least two lefties to open the 2019 season. Morgan could be one, but like Garcia, it feels like it’s time for a change of scenery.

Internally, 25-year-old Austin Davis, who posted a 3.29 ERA in 11 games in July, could be one of the two lefties the Phillies carry to start the season. But while that feels more likely than not, he has three minor league options left and posted a 4.15 ERA in 32 games in 2018, so he didn’t cement himself as someone that will make the team out of Spring Training. Between free-agency, trades, the Rule-5 Draft and non-roster invitees, the Phillies could bring in two external options. Also remember, Morgan could still be in the picture.

Five relief appearances late in the season seemed to be a precursor of the Phillies plans to move Enyel De Los Santos to the bullpen. If that’s the case, he’ll likely be on the Opening Day roster. Elsewhere in the starting rotation, it would appear Nick Pivetta, who some think could thrive in the bullpen, will remain in the starting rotation in 2019.

Vince Velasquez, once the key piece acquired from the Houston Astros for the aforementioned Giles, is less certain. Even after a month of a September in which he posted a 10.70 ERA in five starts, Velasquez finished the season with a 3.75 FIP and a 2.6 fWAR. You could make the case for him being in the starting rotation again in 2019, but the Phillies have now had three seasons to examine the 26-year-old in the rotation. If the Phillies make an external addition(s) to the starting rotation and/or would prefer for Zach Eflin and Jerad Eickhoff to start in 2019, Velasquez could be moved to the bullpen. Some have always felt that Velasquez would be best utilized as a late-inning reliever.

It’s early to gauge what external options the Phillies could pursue in free-agency. Madson, part of the 2008 World Series Phillies, has been excellent for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the postseason after struggling in August and September. The Phillies were reportedly interested in former New York Mets closer Jeurys Familia in July, before he was ultimately acquired by the Oakland Athletics. Indians star reliever Andrew Miller will be a free-agent this offseason, as will Cody Allen, the organization’s long-time closer, who had a down-season in 2018. Zach Britton, another name the Phillies were reportedly interested in prior to the non-waiver trade deadline, will be a free-agent, though he will face questions about his ability to stay healthy long-term. Jonny Venters, Sergio Romo, Adam Ottavino, David Robertson and Brad Brach are other options the Phillies will have in free-agency.

Boston Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel, set to pitch in the World Series, will also be a free-agent this offseason. Despite a growing Hall of Fame case, it’s hard to imagine the Phillies, a team that hopes to compete for the playoffs in 2019 but certainly won’t enter the year as a World Series contender, committing a ton of money to a closer on the wrong side of 30. It feels like if the Phillies were to add an elite closer, it would be more likely to be in July, when they are more certain about what type of team they have. The Chicago Cubs did that with Aroldis Chapman in 2016, the Houston Astros nearly did so with Britton in 2017 and the Indians did with Brad Hand in 2018.

So the Phillies have three or four locks to be in their bullpen in 2019. That means over half of the bullpen slots are up-for-grabs entering an offseason that may be the most important in club history.

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