The Philadelphia Phillies bullpen had the fourth best ERA in the majors after the trade deadline last season. If they want to replicate that success in 2020, they are going to have to rely on a different set of arms than they did in 2019.
They haven’t signed a single reliever to a major-league contract. They added Robert Stock and Trevor Kelley to the 40-man roster after claiming them on waivers and signed veteran arms in Drew Storen, Bud Norris and Francisco Liriano to minor-league contracts, but have not added any guaranteed contributors to the bullpen.
Other than Jose Alvarez and Hector Neris, no one currently in the bullpen was a key contributor for the totality of last season. Adam Morgan and Seranthony Dominguez both faced injury problems, and much of the bullpen help that the Phillies acquired mid-season – Mike Morin, Jared Hughes, Blake Parker and Nick Vincent – is no longer employed by the organization.
This leaves a lot resting on the shoulders of young players who were unable to contribute for all of last season. While Dominguez, who was a revelation in 2018, has been discussed widely as a huge key to the success of the bullpen, there is another young arm that has shown an ability as a high-leverage reliever in the big leagues: Victor Arano.
Arano, who came to the organization in the Roberto Hernandez trade in 2014, made his Major League debut in 2017 and impressed in 10 outings. He built on this success over the course of 2018, pitching to the tune of a 2.73 ERA in 60 games. His effectiveness led some to believe that he would continue to play a big role for a Phillies team that was looking to contend in the 2019 season.
However, last year, Arano struggled greatly during Spring Training and began the season with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. He was called up in mid-April, but only appeared in three games before getting placed on the injured list with right elbow inflammation. Arano was one of the first dominoes to fall for a bullpen that was crushed by injuries, as he ended up having arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow in late May, a procedure that ultimately kept him from returning in 2019.
As the Phillies have elected to largely stand pat on their bullpen, a healthy return from Arano has become that much more important.
Arano relies mainly on his slider, throwing it roughly 60 percent of the time, while mixing in four-seam and two-seam fastballs, both of which sit 93-95 mph. The slider, which is clearly his best pitch, generated a swing-and-miss 42.8% of the time in 2018.
At his 2018 level of production, Arano is a capable high-leverage reliever, which would likely leave him as a suitable seventh or eighth inning option. Last week, manager Joe Girardi said that he wanted to set defined roles for his bullpen. Assuming that Neris resumes his role as closer, the eighth inning will likely end up belonging to a mix of Arano, Dominguez and Alvarez, if all three options are healthy.
A significant factor in how the bullpen shapes up will also be dependent on how the effectiveness of some guys, specifically Alvarez and Adam Morgan, change with the new three-batter minimum for each reliever. But Arano returning to his 2018 reliability would be just about as significant for the Phillies as signing any free-agent reliever would have been.
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