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Phillies would still be wise to target established closer after lockout

Kenley Jansen is a free agent. (Ian D’Andrea)

Corey Knebel had an excellent finish to his 2021 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and was once an All-Star closer with the Milwaukee Brewers.

But banking on someone who hasn’t been a team’s primary closer in four seasons without much in the way of an insurance option feels like it could set the Philadelphia Phillies up for a third consecutive season of bullpen struggles that prevent them from reaching the playoffs.

That’s not to say that it was a mistake to sign the 30-year-old to a one-year/$10 million deal in November, that remains to be seen. But if Knebel can’t stay healthy or can’t be a horse in the ninth inning after pitching in only 27 games this past season, where will Joe Girardi turn at closer? Sam Coonrod, Connor Brogdon, Seranthony Domínguez and José Alvarado all have high ceilings, but none are sure things. Far from it, really.

In today’s game, you need at least two high-leverage relievers that you are sure can get big outs late in games. The Brewers have Josh Hader and Devin Williams. Last year, the Dodgers had Knebel, Kenley Jansen, Blake Treinen, Phil Bickford, Joe Kelly and Jimmy Nelson all as options for Dave Roberts to turn to with the game on the line.

If the Phillies hope to not only return to the playoffs but have a chance at making an October run, they’re going to need multiple high-leverage arms. Knebel, they believe, will be one. And maybe one of the aforementioned quartet of Coonrod, Brogdon, Domínguez or Alvarado will have a breakout season in 2022. But when you consider that Knebel can hardly be considered a sure thing, it would be nice to have someone to take the ball in the ninth inning who is as close to that as possible.

The aforementioned Jansen remains a free agent, and could be a good fit for a Phillies team that’s thin on playoff experience. Jansen is 34, but was still excellent this past season, posting a 2.22 ERA, 3.08 FIP and 38 saves for the Dodgers. At the outset of the offseason, I projected on Audacy Sports that Jansen — whose 350 career saves are 13th in MLB history — would land a two-year/$30 million deal.

Meanwhile, eight-time All-Star Craig Kimbrel could be had in a trade after he struggled to adjust to being Liam Hendricks’ set-up man upon his midseason trade from the Chicago Cubs to the White Sox. It’s unclear what trade compensation would look like for Kimbrel, who has 372 saves in a career that may be destined for Cooperstown. But president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski acquired Kimbrel once in Boston, and the Phillies at least checked in on him last summer. The 33-year-old is set to make $16 million in 2022, the final year of his contract.

Either of those two would require a notable financial commitment in 2022. We don’t know what the luxury tax threshold will be when the owner-imposed lockout is lifted and a new collective bargaining agreement is in place. In their most recent proposal, the Major League Baseball Players Association asked for the first threshold to be $238 million. The owners countered with $220 million, a proposal “unanimously” rejected by the MLBPA.

As Phillies Nation‘s Destiny Lugardo noted, the Phillies currently have approximately $182 million in commitments for the 2022 season, meaning their space under the threshold — which they’ve never gone over — could go quickly when you consider that they still need to sign a starting left fielder, a starting center fielder, someone to get a bulk of the DH at-bats and starting pitching depth.

To build a team with a legitimate shot at winning the National League East, the Phillies may have to make peace with exceeding the luxury tax threshold, either before the 2022 season or during it. Frankly, the strategy of waiting until the trade deadline to try to find your closer hasn’t worked out very well the last two years, so perhaps it would be wiser to bite the bullet now and either sign Jansen or trade for Kimbrel. While we’re sure the Phillies would love to have Josh Hader, it’s not clear if the Brewers would actually trade him, and if they did, the Phillies likely wouldn’t have the prospect capital to land the three-time All-Star.

If the Phillies do indeed plan to move forward with Knebel as their closer, it would still be wise to add another experienced set-up man. Kelly — Knebel’s former teammate in Los Angeles — is a free agent, though he appears to have his heart set on returning to the Dodgers. Ryan Tepera, Collin McHugh, Andrew Chafin and Brad Boxberger are among the other veteran relief options that the Phillies could consider.

But Girardi would probably appreciate heading into a contract year with Knebel as a set-up man, and one of this era’s best closers available to finish games for him in the ninth.


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