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MLB insider wonders if Phillies could start ‘sniping’ relievers this offseason


What is the plan for the Philadelphia Phillies this winter and beyond? No one is exactly sure, which leaves us to speculate.

Is there a master plan to wait for Theo Epstein to leave the Chicago Cubs, and hope to convince him to take over baseball operations for the Phillies? There’s no evidence of such a plan, but who knows.

Citizens Bank Park has been the home of the Phillies since 2004. (Tim Kelly/Phillies Nation)

At the very least there doesn’t appear to be anything imminent in terms of finding Andy MacPhail’s successor, or replacing former general manager Matt Klentak on a permanent basis. That means that some combination of managing partner John Middleton, MacPhail and interim general manager – perhaps with influence from Joe Girardi, Pat Gillick and Terry Ryan – will be left to make key on-field decisions this offseason.

And while there is plenty of focus being placed on what exactly the structure of the Phillies’ front office is in the short-term and will be in the long-term, there are a ton of key organizational decisions left to be made this winter. Two-time All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto is a free agent, as is shortstop Didi Gregorius. If the Phillies hope to contend for the postseason in a division with four other seeming playoff contenders, they’ll also need to rebuild a historically-bad bullpen.

ESPN‘s Jeff Passan and Buster Olney are two of the most plugged in individuals in the sport, but admitted on the latest “Baseball Tonight” podcast that they’re as perplexed as the rest of us in terms of what the Phillies organizational direction is currently. Passan elaborated on that, and also wondered whether the Phillies will eventually get aggressive in their pursuit of bullpen upgrades:

There’s a lot of confusion around the game when it comes to what the Phillies are doing, too, because when you go out and sign Bryce Harper to a $330 million contract, it’s almost the expectation that you are going to build around him…and when you have somebody like Alec Bohm coming up and doing what he did last year, it’s like the Phillies are close you know they’ve got Nola, too, they’ve got Zach Wheeler, too… I almost wonder, Buster, if they’re just gonna lay low and start sniping relief pitchers as the market gets flooded and as the prices go down. And if that’s part of their offseason strategy to take advantage of all the arms that are gonna be out there and rebuild the bullpen that was absolutely disastrous.

If there was an offseason to attempt to successfully turn over your bullpen, this would seemingly be it. Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors has projected that the Phillies will sign free-agent closer Liam Hendricks to a three-year/$30 million deal this offseason. FanGraphs says that Hendricks, who will turn 32 in February, has been the most valuable reliever in the sport over the last two seasons, by a comfortable margin.

While signing Hendricks would theoretically bring much-needed stability to the back-end of the Phillies’ bullpen in 2021, it can’t be the only move that the team makes this winter to bolster Girardi’s bullpen.

Brad Hand, Trevor Rosenthal, Trevor May and Blake Treinen are all accomplished relief pitchers that MLB Trade Rumors projects will sign for two years and $14 million this offseason. Will the Phillies sign Hendricks to a three-year deal and be in on one of these four for multiple years? Maybe not. But in a normal market, all four would be looking at getting more money annually, and potentially, an extra year. Though there may be labor strife next winter, all four could sign one-year deals this winter and hope for a better climate in free agency next offseason. If any of the quartet became available for just a one-year commitment, they would seemingly become the type of pieces that Passan is talking about “sniping.”

The Phillies, like 28 other teams in the sport, passed up on a chance to claim Hand and pick up his $10 million for 2021 when the Cleveland Indians waived him in late October. Ultimately, the Indians declined that option, making him a free agent. That no team claimed a reliever that finished the 2020 season with a 2.37 ERA makes you think that there’s some belief from suitors that he could be had for even less of a commitment on the free-agent market.

Lefty José Álvarez posted a 3.17 ERA in 75 games over the past two seasons for the Phillies. In a normal winter, he may very well be looking at getting a lucrative multi-year offer. In an economic climate where MLB owners are expected to pinch pennies, the 31-year-old will likely be looking at a one-year deal, and the Phillies would be smart to attempt to re-sign him.

It’s also important to remember that as teams cut costs, non-contenders (and maybe even some contenders) may non-tender some of their arbitration-eligible players, rather than take on increased 2021 salaries. That means even more competent relievers could hit the market in the coming months.

Internally, the Phillies aren’t entirely devoid of talent in the bullpen, even if the results they got in 2020 suggest otherwise. When Héctor Neris is locked in, his splitter is one of the nastiest pitches in the sport. Connor Brogdon flashed star potential at the tail end of his rookie season. JoJo Romero, Ranger Suárez and Víctor Arano have at least intrigued you for stretches at the major league level.

Still, it’s evident that the Phillies need to make multiple impact additions to their bullpen this offseason.

One issue the organization needs to figure out is why so many accomplished relief pitchers have come to Philadelphia and hit a wall over the past few years. In the cases of Pat Neshek and David Robertson, perhaps the Phillies went to the well one too many times with relievers who had a lot of mileage on them, a risk they could run in signing Hendricks. But why did Brandon Workman and David Phelps struggle so much when they were acquired by the Phillies during the 2020 season? What’s to say if the Phillies sign different relievers this winter, they won’t see a similar decline in Philadelphia?

Another reality in this offseason – whether it should be this way or not – is that if the Phillies make what they hope will be multiple impact additions to the bullpen, it leaves less money to re-sign both Realmuto and Gregorius. That said, we don’t know how aggressive the Phillies plan to be in their attempts to re-sign both, independent of what they do with the bullpen. MLB.com‘s Todd Zolecki wrote Friday that “it’s difficult to see the Phillies bringing back both.”

At the very least, the idea of trying to take advantage of the possibility that the market may undervalue relievers this offseason would represent a plan to address the team’s biggest weakness, which would be a welcome development to Phillies fans. Whether such a strategy would help to snap a nine-year postseason drought remains to be seen.

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