If not for a historically bad bullpen, the Philadelphia Phillies might have made the postseason in 2020.
The Phillies rotation was solid, headed by co-aces Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. The lineup was deep and scored runs aplenty, led by Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins and aided by the emergence of rookie Alec Bohm.
But, despite the strengths elsewhere on the roster, the team could not overcome the bullpen. Phillies relievers combined for an ERA of 7.06, and the team blew eight separate three-run leads.
With league average relievers, the Phillies could have had a much different end result to the 2020 season. And heading into 2021, one of their priorities will be to repair the disastrous bullpen.
Here is how the Phillies can build their bullpen this offseason, including the pieces they already have in place and who they can add in free agency:
Currently the longest-tenured Phillie, Hector Neris is coming off a sub-par 2020 season in which he pitched to a 4.78 ERA in 24 games. However, Neris was the Phillies’ most reliable reliever in 2019, and it would be surprising if they cut ties with him considering the lack of depth currently in the bullpen.
Neris has a $7 million team option in 2021, and even if the Phillies decline to pick it up, they will enter arbitration with him and could still tender him a cheaper contract for the season. Neris is set become a free agent following the 2021 season.
Part of the Phillies’ motivation to acquire David Phelps at the trade deadline was because of his $4.5 million team option in 2021. Phelps was pitching to a 2.77 ERA at that point of the season, and was set to become a reliable contributor in the Phillies bullpen.
Phelps struggled greatly as a Phillie, though, allowing five home runs and 11 earned runs in 7 2/3 innings pitched. The Phillies still may pick up the option on Phelps given his track record as a solid reliever, but that is not a guarantee.
The Phillies are entering the third year of arbitration with another deadline pickup in Heath Hembree. Hembree struggled greatly as a Phillie, allowing 13 earned runs in 9 1/3 innings.
Like Phelps, Hembree has a track record that shows different production. He had a 3.60 ERA over his previous four seasons, so the Phillies could look at that and decide to enter arbitration with Hembree. However, there is still a solid chance that they non-tender him.
The Phillies also traded for David Hale, who is entering his first year of arbitration. Hale had a 4.09 ERA in just six games as a Phillie, but pitched well in most of his games which came later in the season. Given that he will be a cheap option for 2021, it seems likely that the Phillies will tender him a contract.
Connor Brogdon, who made his MLB debut in 2020, looks to be a real piece in the bullpen moving forward. After allowing five earned runs in his first three outings in early August, Brogdon was sent back down to the alternate site in Lehigh Valley for nearly a month.
When Brogdon was called back up in mid-September, he was as close to a lockdown reliever as the Phillies had seen all season. In 8 2/3 innings across six games, Brogdon allowed no runs and just one hit, striking out 14 along the way. After that stretch, it looks like the Phillies have something in the hard-throwing right hander.
JoJo Romero, formerly a crafty starting pitching prospect, turned heads this season when he started pumping 97 mph fastballs out of the bullpen. He impressed in his first nine appearances, pitching to a 2.89 ERA in some high-leverage situations.
But Romero faltered down the stretch with back-to-back outings in which he allowed three earned runs, and his ERA on the season skyrocketed to 7.59. Despite the sour ending to the 2020 season, Romero showed that he has potential to be a reliable left-handed arm out of the bullpen for the Phillies moving forward.
There are a plethora of free-agent relief pitchers available this offseason, and the Phillies will need to bring in a few to bolster their bullpen in 2021 and beyond.
Liam Hendriks is the best option available, with a 1.79 ERA over the past two seasons. However, it seems unlikely that the Phillies would invest a great sum of money into one reliever considering their various needs across the roster and apparent lack of financial flexibility.
Right-hander Kirby Yates was one of the most dominant relievers in baseball in 2019, pitching to a 1.19 ERA and striking out 15 batters per nine innings. But he took a step back in 2020, struggling in six outings before being sidelined for the rest of the season with an elbow injury.
Yates could still price out of the Phillies desired price range, but he could make sense as a bounce-back candidate that would bolster the back of the bullpen.
Pittsburgh Pirates closer Keone Kela only pitched in three games in 2020 due to right forearm inflammation, but has a solid track record. Kela pitched to a 2.87 ERA during the previous two seasons, and would certainly help to solidify the Phillies bullpen if they target him.
Mark Melancon and Shane Greene, both coming out of contracts with the Atlanta Braves, are also high-end options for the Phillies to target this offseason. Melancon, 36, is out of his prime as a reliever but still had a solid 3.40 ERA over the past two seasons.
Greene, who was a starting pitcher to start his career, has turned into one of the better relief pitchers in baseball. In 93 games over the past two seasons, Greene had a 2.39 ERA and would clearly be a helpful addition to the Phillies bullpen.
Closer Alex Colome is coming off an excellent 2020 season in which he allowed just two earned runs in 22 1/3 innings pitched. Colome has been reliable since he entered the major leagues, pitching to a 2.95 ERA during stints with the Tampa Bay Rays, Seattle Mariners and Chicago White Sox.
Beyond the top available options, there are several free-agent relievers who would serve as depth and come at lower costs.
This includes Jose Alvarez, who has been the team’s most reliable left-handed option since the Phillies acquired him in the offseason prior to the 2019 season. Alvarez had a 3.17 ERA in 75 games as a Phillie prior to missing the latter half of the 2020 season after being struck with a ball in the groin.
Veteran left-handers Sean Doolittle and Andrew Miller have both taken steps back in recent seasons, but could be value plays for the Phillies this offseason. They were both elite relievers at their peaks and could be a solid veteran presence in the bullpen at a lower cost than some other pitchers available.
Traditional set-up relievers like Pedro Baez and Tyler Clippard would also make sense for the Phillies. Baez, 32, has a 3.03 ERA across seven seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Clippard, 35, has had a career revival the past two seasons with a combined 2.86 ERA with the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins.
The Phillies will likely have to mix signings of these established veterans with signings similar to that of their one-year, $850,000 contract that they gave Tommy Hunter this offseason. Options for this type of signing this offseason include veteran Ian Kennedy and former Houston Astro Chris Devenski, who both struggled in 2020.
Players who pitched poorly over the course of the 60-game season may see their markets fall, but this small sample size mean that these players could bounce back in 2021. While the Phillies need to avoid banking only on these types of relievers, they should target some of them in an effort to create depth.
One trade candidate that could make sense is left-handed reliever Brad Hand, who has a $10 million team-option with the Cleveland Indians in 2021. The Indians are known to cut salary and trade players late in their contracts, so Hand will likely be available.
Hand has been one of the more reliable closers in baseball for the past several seasons. Since 2016, he has a 2.70 ERA and has struck out over 12 batters per nine innings. And given the monetary price tag, the package needed to acquire him could be relatively cheap.
The Phillies are likely in need of at least four additional serviceable relievers, and with much else to do and limited willingness to spend, will have to mix established pitchers with bounce back candidates in order to have an effective offseason.
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