The Phillies’ decision to option Scott Kingery to Triple-A to begin the season didn’t come as a huge surprise by the time it was announced Sunday. Given Kingery’s struggles in spring training — and, really, largely since his Major League debut in 2018 — there seemed little fit for him on the Opening Day roster.
The same can’t be said for JoJo Romero.
The lefty reliever joined Kingery as the Phillies’ most recent options to Triple-A on Sunday, and it caught plenty off guard. Romero showed flashes of brilliance amid a disastrous Phillies bullpen last year, and his 7.59 ERA across 12 appearances looks a whole lot better considering his FIP was less than half that, at a mark of 3.66.
Though perhaps better known across baseball for his Red-Bull-chugging-and-smashing ritual prior to entering ballgames, Romero had emerged as a legitimate option from the left side. His success came amid a velocity jump that saw him touch 98 mph last season after hovering around 90 in the Minor Leagues.
That velocity spike carried into spring training, helping the 24-year-old surrender just one earned run across 8 2/3 innings of work while punching out eight.
But on Sunday, Romero got the hook.
“It was a tough decision, [Sam] Coonrod and JoJo were in that mix,” Girardi said on Sunday. “I think JoJo has the chance to be an elite reliever. But I think he has to be more economical. I think he has to get ahead some more. He’s got really really good stuff. He’s got three swing-and-miss pitches but I think there’s a little bit more he can do with his command to put him in better positions to be successful.”
The move now leaves Brandon Kintzler, Vince Velasquez, Archie Bradley, Connor Brogdon, David Hale, Héctor Neris, Sam Coonrod and José Alvarado as the Phillies’ likely bullpen on Opening Day. It’s markedly improved from last year’s group — which, you might remember, posted a whoppingly bad 7.06 ERA, the second worst number in baseball history.
There’s a problem, though: There’s only one lefty.
Granted, that lone lefty — Alvarado, whose 101 mph tumbling sinker hitters see in their nightmares — is the team’s most talented reliever. He boasts the best pure stuff in the bullpen, the entire Phillies pitching staff and, heck, maybe even all of baseball.
But Alvarado can’t throw every day, and that’s true even without considering that the Phillies may try to limit his workload early on given injuries to his throwing arm have derailed each of his last two seasons. Alvarado will figure to be the team’s go-to in high-leverage situations more often than not, but beyond him, the Phillies’ bullpen feels one-dimensional.
The move is even more puzzling given the Phillies’ opponents early on in the season. The team will open the schedule with each of its first 13 games coming against the Atlanta Braves or New York Mets.
Those lineups, among the two of the best in the National League, feature several left-handed hitters that might have the Phillies regretting their lack of options from the left side.
Last season’s NL MVP, Freddie Freeman, has a career .940 OPS against righties compared to a .787 mark against lefties. (In his MVP season in 2020, Freeman posted a 1.228 OPS against righties and a .713 OPS against lefties). New York’s Brandon Nimmo boasts a .864 OPS against righties in his career, while lefties have limited him to .758. Southpaws have held the Mets’ Michael Conforto to a slugging percentage more than 100 points lower than righties have. The same is nearly true for his teammate Jeff McNeil.
In addition, starting pitchers will likely be on short leashes all season — especially in the first month or two — as a result of the lack of innings induced by the 60-game schedule last year.
By no means is the Phillies’ bullpen outlook finalized, and there may still be a move between now and Opening Day that clears a spot. But if not, and if these are the eight that the Phillies trot out to the double-decker bullpen at Citizens Bank Park for Game 1 Thursday, Joe Girardi and co may soon find themselves wishing for another late-inning weapon from the left side of the rubber.
Romero seemed likely to be that weapon. But as of now, on Opening Day, he won’t.
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