Each week, 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 TSK@TimKellyMedia.com.
Besides the obvious of waiting for Bryce Harper/Manny Machado to sign, do you think the Phillies will sign Craig Kimbrel to be their closer? Having a dominant bullpen has proven to be a recipe for success, and having a back-end of Kimbrel, David Roberston, and Seranthony Dominguez would be amazing. Thoughts? – Rob Lillie
After acquiring All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto from the Miami Marlins Thursday, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler told MLB Network that the Phillies are in “win right now mode.” As you mentioned, we’ll continue to wait on free-agent decisions from Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, because what other choice do we have?
But yes, part of being in “win right now mode” in 2019 is having a bullpen with three or four legitimate options.
Seranthony Dominguez flashed All-Star potential in his rookie season, posting a 2.95 ERA in 53 games. Much to the chagrin of some, Dominguez never became the club’s full-time closer, instead being used in whatever the highest-leverage situation after the starting pitcher exited the game was. Sometimes that was the ninth inning. Other times, Harper, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto were due up for the Washington Nationals in the seventh or eighth inning, making that the highest-leverage situation. Expect the Phillies to use Dominguez in a similar way in 2019.
David Robertson, who the Phillies inked to a two-year/$23 million free-agent contract in January, recorded 110 saves between 2014 and 2016. He also was an All-Star in 2011, posting a 1.08 ERA in a set-up role for Mariano Rivera. In his first full season back with the New York Yankees in 2018, Robertson tallied a 2.97 FIP in 69 games, serving as a set-up man in a bullpen that included Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and by the end of the season, Zach Britton. So while the guess here is that the 33-year-old will record the most saves for the Phillies in 2019, he’s comfortable pitching in any role, one of the things that made him such a good fit for the Phillies.
“Win right now mode” would seem to suggest not only reaching the postseason, but advancing in the postseason. If you look at some other teams in “win right now mode,” they either possess three or four legitimate front-line starters – the defending World Series Champion Boston Red Sox – or they possess three or four legitimate front-line relievers, such as the Yankees. While the Phillies may feel strongly that Nick Pivetta is going to develop into a legitimate starter, and they may hope for a bounce-back season from Jake Arrieta, the truth is they currently have one legitimate front-line starter – Aaron Nola – and a lot of uncertainty behind him. So the Phillies best bet to turn “win right now mode” into a reality, in addition to an offense that should be vastly improved, is to build one of the game’s strongest bullpens.
Adding Kimbrel, 30, in theory, would give them that. His 211 ERA+ is the best in baseball history among relievers, topping Hall of Famers Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Dennis Eckersley, among others. His 333 career saves are 14th in baseball history, and the most among active closers..
The problem is that Kimbrel entered the offseason reportedly seeking a six-year contract. Had he became a free-agent after the 2017 season – when he posted a 1.42 FIP and 3.3 fWAR – that may not have been a request that was laughed at. But while he was still effective in 2018, he wasn’t quite as dominant, posting a 3.13 FIP and 1.5 fWAR. In the postseason, he ran out of gas entirely, posting a 5.91 ERA in nine games.
Kimbrel has seen some moderate drop in his velocity, but his average fastball velocity in 2018 was 97.5 miles per hour. It is fair to think that over the course of a long-term deal, he’ll see some decline. So did another former Red Sox that came to the Phillies on a free-agent contract: Jonathan Papelbon. Still, Papelbon made two All-Star teams in parts of four seasons with the Phillies, and ultimately netted the Phillies Pivetta. He’s the Phillies all-time saves leader. His biggest issue was his public persona.
A six-time All-Star, Kimbrel doesn’t possess the same alter-ego that Papelbon did, one that made him seem a bit out there in Boston, even in a clubhouse that included Manny Ramirez. Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors projected at the outset of the offseason that Kimbrel would receive a four-year/$70 million deal in free-agency. If the Phillies add one of Harper or Machado onto Realmuto and the pieces they’ve already brought in this offseason, they truly are in “win now mode.” Tossing Kimbrel into that mix – for what they deem to be a fair price, of course – wouldn’t hurt that effort.
Even without an obvious closer, the current Phillies bullpen has a chance to be a pretty special group. The ability for Dominguez and Robertson to pitch in any late-game situation isn’t easy to find. Pat Neshek was an All-Star for the Phillies in 2017, and despite any reservations he has about pitching on back-to-back days, when he’s on the mound, he’s been very effective for the Phillies. After a rocky start in his first season with the Phillies, 32-year-old righty Tommy Hunter posted a 3.00 ERA in 29 games after the All-Star Break. As Phillies fans have learned in the past four seasons, things can get ugly when Hector Neris isn’t locked in. And that he’s out of minor league options does make you wonder if he couldn’t be traded before Opening Day. But if he’s in Philadelphia, he’ll be on the major league roster, and his 2.04 ERA in the second-half of the 2018 season is a reminder of how dominant he can be when his splitter, is, well, splitting.
Beyond that, the Phillies have left themselves with quite a bit of depth to fill out the final three or four spots of their bullpen.
At least two of those final spots will likely go to left-handed pitchers. Lefties hit just .206 in 2018 against Jose Alvarez, who the Phillies acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Angels last December. He’s also out of minor league options, so he’ll almost certainly be on the Opening Day roster. Acquiring him led to speculation that the Phillies could move on from Adam Morgan, who is also out of minor league options. The guess here is that still could happen before the season begins, but since he’s out of minor league options, if Morgan remains in Philadelphia, it will have to be on the major league roster. If not Morgan, James Pazos, acquired in the Jean Segura deal, or Austin Davis could be the final lefty in the bullpen, though both actually fared better against right-handed batters in 2018.
Even after all of those names, the Phillies have some very qualified options left. Edubray Ramos posted a 2.32 ERA in 52 games in 2018. Victor Arano was an unsung hero of the 2018 Phillies, limiting right-handed batters to a .207 batting average in 60 games in 2018. However, he has three minor league options remaining, so a numbers game could force him to open the season at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Five of Enyel De Los Santos’ major league appearances in 2018 came in relief, and there’s an expectation from some that the Phillies may move him to the bullpen in 2019, making him another option here. And one of Jerad Eickhoff or Vince Velasquez won’t be the Phillies fifth starter when they began carrying a fifth starter.
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