Life as a relief pitcher comes at you fast, especially in the 2020 climate when teams across Major League Baseball are pinching pennies.
Tim Dierkes and Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors recently released their 2020 non-tender candidates, and on the list was a Philadelphia Phillie that may surprise some: reliever Seranthony Dominguez.
Dominguez, still only 25, burst onto the scene in 2018, posting a 2.95 ERA and 2.85 FIP across 53 games for the Phillies. There was a fairly universal belief at the time that Dominguez had a chance to become a stalwart in the bullpen, and potentially the best homegrown reliever in the history of the franchise.
To this point, that’s not how things have panned out.
Though Dominguez opened the 2019 season at the forefront of Gabe Kapler’s bullpen, he was underwhelming in 27 games, posting a 4.01 ERA. On June 5, 2019, Dominguez left an appearance in San Diego with a UCL injury, and he’s yet to return to a major league mound.
If you need an idea of how long it’s been since Dominguez last pitched for the Phillies, consider this: in the same San Diego series that Dominguez was injured in, Andrew McCutchen tore his ACL, Jay Bruce made his Phillies’ debut and Adam Haseley made his major league debut. Heck, Odubel Herrera’s most recent appearance with the Phillies came within 10 days of Dominguez suffering his initial UCL injury. So it’s been a minute.
Though it was concerning that Dominguez never returned in 2019, he seemingly went through a normal offseason last winter, and came to spring training hoping to make an impact for Joe Girardi in 2020. Unfortunately for Dominguez, he suffered a setback in his first Grapefruit League appearance, and after attempting to rehab the injury previously, it was determined this time that the Dominican-born righty needed Tommy John surgery.
To make matters worse, Dominguez returned home during the initial COVID-19 shutdown, and did so without having the procedure completed. Dominguez wouldn’t ultimately undergo Tommy John surgery until July 30, 2020, not only ending his 2020 season, but making it very possibly he won’t be able to pitch at all in 2021. If all goes perfectly, Dominguez won’t be able to contribute until August or September of 2021, and as the Phillies learned with David Robertson this past season, there is no guarantee that setbacks don’t occur in recovery from the procedure.
Dominguez is projected by Spotrac to make $900,000 in 2021, his first year of arbitration eligibility. (Dominguez has 2.147 years of service time, meaning he qualifies as a “Super Two” player.) Knowing he may not pitch in 2021, Dominguez’s representatives could settle for a lower amount with the Phillies to avoid the potential of being non-tendered. Then again, it’s been quite a while since Dominguez has appeared in a game and his long-term future in the sport is very much in question. That makes you think Dominguez would be motivated to make as much money as possible while he’s still in the sport.
In any other year, a major-market team like the Phillies wouldn’t think twice about tendering Dominguez a contract, knowing that the possibility exists that they lose an arbitration case and have to pay a little more than they would like to. However, managing partner John Middleton was non-committal about how much the team will be able to spend next season when discussing the matter in October.
“I can’t tell you. Can you tell me what the governor [of Pennsylvania] and the mayor of Philadelphia are going to allow us to have next year in the way of fans? Because if you do, you know something that I don’t,” Middleton said.
There’s hope that a COVID-19 vaccine could be widely available at some time early next spring, though that’s not yet certain. Currently, there are over 279,000 reported cases of the virus in Pennsylvania. With rates skyrocketing, indoor dining will be banned for the remainder of the calendar year beginning Friday. The limited attendance that had been allowed at Eagles games will be scrapped. So it’s truly hard to know if the Phillies really will host the Atlanta Braves on April 1, 2020, and whether and to what extent fan attendance will be allowed.
In October, Kaleel Weatherly and Ryan Sharrow of Philadelphia Business Journal noted that according to the annual Team Marketing Report, the Phillies lost $186.1 million in 2020 because of fans not being able to attend games. Technically, you can’t lose money that you never had, but how much teams spend in a given year is directly related to how much the organization projects that they will make. Lord willing, 2021 will be a more financially fruitful year for everyone than 2020, but the Phillies are probably smart to assume that they won’t bring in the same amount they would in a normal year.
What wouldn’t be smart would be for an organization desperate for impact relief pitching to make the short-sighted move of non-tendering Dominguez over what will likely amount to a salary of less than $1 million. Dominguez is under team control through 2024, and the possibility exists that he gets healthy and returns to being an impact reliever, perhaps as soon as the waning weeks of the 2021 season.
Of course, the flip side of that is that there’s a very real possibility that for as hard as Dominguez works, his body just doesn’t cooperate and he’s never able to reach his ceiling. Injuries are an unfortunate reality of sports. Even if Dominguez ultimately does return to health, he may not be available until 2022, and if the Phillies are self-imposing a budget because of financial uncertainty in the world, close to $1 million may not be seen as an insignificant amount by the organization’s decisions makers.
This isn’t a discussion about whether the Phillies should non-tender Dominguez – of course they shouldn’t, and the guess here is that he’ll ultimately remain with the organization in 2021. But is it impossible that Dominguez gets non-tendered this winter in an effort to save money, perhaps with the hope of bringing him back at a lower price but no guarantee of that happening? No, it’s not.
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