When the Philadelphia Phillies introduced RHP Zack Wheeler and shortstop Didi Gregorius in December, general manager Matt Klentak cited how many things the team had go wrong in 2019 as a reason why he believed 2020 could be the year that an eight-year postseason drought is snapped.
It is true that the Phillies were crushed by injuries in the bullpen. The thing is, many of the notable arms the 2019 Phillies were counting on out of the bullpen that got hurt aren’t expected to be in the picture in 2020. Tommy Hunter’s contract expired. The Phillies declined Pat Neshek’s 2020 option. David Robertson is under contract for $11 million in 2020, but after having Tommy John surgery in August of 2019, it would take quite the recovery for him to pitch at all in 2020.
The Phillies will get back Adam Morgan and Victor Arano, both of whom finished the season on the injured list. But as the Phillies watched Blake Treinen and Dellin Betances sign one-year, prove-it deals elsewhere, it was hard not to be left with the feeling that they have immense expectations for Seranthony Dominguez in 2020.
Dominguez burst onto the scene in 2018, posting a 2.95 ERA and 2.85 FIP across 53 games. Though he had less success when asked to pitch multiple innings, Dominguez was electric at times during his rookie year. He looked like someone that could thrive as a closer – or in whatever the highest-leverage situation was between the starting pitcher leaving the game and the closer entering.
The Dominican-born righty’s second season didn’t go as well.
In 27 games in 2019, Dominguez posted a 4.01 ERA and 4.02 FIP. He exited an appearance in San Diego on June 5 with what turned out to be a UCL injury. He didn’t return the rest of the season, which is troubling when you consider how early in the season that was. The series that Dominguez got hurt in was the same one that Andrew McCutchen suffered a season-ending ACL tear and Jay Bruce made his Phillies debut – it wasn’t like it was in the waning weeks of the season.
The Phillies initially feared the Dominguez would need Tommy John surgery, which would have ended his 2019 season and potentially cut into 2020. Instead, Dr. James Andrews, the country’s most renowned sports orthopedic surgeon, determined that surgery wasn’t necessary and instead gave him a platelet-rich plasma injection that left him with a four-to-six week timeline on resuming his throwing program.
Four to six weeks after the injection would have put him in position to return to his throwing program shortly after the All-Star Break. Based on that timetable, one would have reasonably expected the 25-year-old to return in 2019.
In late August, Dominguez was re-examined after feeling “some soreness” in a throwing session. Again, it was determined that Dominguez didn’t need Tommy John surgery, with Dr. Michael Ciccotti, the team physician, examining Dominguez.
After the examination, Dominguez resumed his throwing program. He didn’t return for a Phillies team that finished at a disappointing 81-81 mark, but Klentak said at November’s general manager’s meetings that Dominguez was able to throw all of his pitches “pain free” before being shut down for the offseason. At that time, Klentak noted that Dominguez’s offseason routine wasn’t expected to be altered in any way and that the expectation was he would be good to go for Spring Training.
As far as we know, that hasn’t changed. Phillies pitchers and catchers are due to report to Clearwater on Feb. 11. There’s nothing to indicate that Dominguez won’t be ready to tune up for the regular season.
Of course, being healthy at the outset of Spring Training is just one hurdle he’ll have to clear. Joe Girardi, the new Phillies manager, said bluntly at his introductory press conference that the bullpen needs to stay healthy in 2020. Whether Girardi plans to use Dominguez as a closer or in another role, he’s the most crucial reliever that the Phillies need to have a clean bill of health in 2020, especially considering they haven’t made any notable additions to the bullpen.
The New York Mets bullpen was an unmitigated disaster in 2019 and the team still won 86 games. The Mets signed former Yankee Dellin Betances to a one-year/$10 million deal in late December, hoping he bounces back to the form that allowed him to become one of the league’s most dominant relievers from 2014-2018. There’s seemingly nowhere to go but up for Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia, both of whom had disastrous 2019s. If the Mets can get solid production out of two out of those three, mixed with Seth Lugo, they could potentially win 90 plus games in 2020.
The defending World Series Champion Washington Nationals inked reliever Will Harris to a three-year deal this week. Harris posted a 1.50 ERA in 68 games in 2019 for the Houston Astros. A good way to make up for some holes in the bullpen is to have an elite starting rotation, and while the Nationals may be getting a bit long in the tooth in their rotation, they re-signed World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg, keeping him together with Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin at the top of the team’s starting rotation.
The Atlanta Braves won 97 games and their second consecutive National League East title in 2019, and may be even better in 2020. General manager Alex Anthopoulos re-signed Chris Martin and added lefty Will Smith, arguably the best reliever on the market, on a three-year deal in free agency. When you add those two to a bullpen that already includes Mark Melancon and Shane Greene, the Braves look like a team that could win 100 plus games in 2020, especially if they retain Josh Donaldson.
Meanwhile, the Phillies major additions this offseason weren’t in the bullpen, an area where Hector Neris and Jose Alvarez were really the only sure things in 2019. They will get Morgan and Arano back from injuries. Perhaps J.D. Hammer and/or Edgar Garcia will come of age in 2020. One of Nick Pivetta or Vince Velasquez could end up in the bullpen to start the season. Maybe the Phillies will hit on an under-the-radar offseason pickup like Trevor Kelley or Robert Stock.
But with Spring Training in the not-so-distant-future, there’s a ton of pressure on Dominguez to both stay healthy and develop into one of the game’s elite relievers this season. If he doesn’t, it will be another strike against a regime that has struggled to effectively put together a bullpen.
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