LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — In Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, the Phillies have spent $34.25 million this week to fortify what was a decidedly average bullpen in 2017. The relievers ranked 17th in ERA, 16th in innings pitched, 15th in strikeout rate, 18th in walk rate, and 15th in home runs per nine innings. It was not a weakness on a 96-loss team. It was not its strength.
Neshek is a familiar piece; the Phillies cannot expect him to duplicate the 1.12 ERA he delivered in 40 1/3 innings for them last season, but they know what worked for him a season ago and both the team and pitcher believe there was a level of comfort in Philadelphia that created success.
Hunter might have posted the most anonymous 58 2/3 innings of a 2.61 ERA in baseball last season. He is 31. He has pitched for five teams, been traded twice, and been released once. His strikeout rate jumped in his one season with Tampa Bay to 28.1 percent from 16.6 percent. His fastball has averaged 96 mph over the last five seasons.
The change in Tampa was an increased use of his cutter, a pitch he threw 32 percent of the time that averaged 94 mph. Opponents hit .170 and slugged .245 against Hunter’s cutter. Those figures ranked fourth and second, respectively, among all major-league relievers with more than 30 innings pitched. It was a good pitch for him. It might have persuaded the Phillies to pay the nomadic righthander $18 million over two years.
That dollar figure was panned by some opposing team executives and scouts as excessive. Hunter, for now, is the team’s highest-paid player by annual average value. But the Phillies are less concerned about the money and more about the length of commitment; the team has fistfuls of cash to spend and targeted the bullpen as a sensible place to do it. If Hunter becomes a trade chip, the Phillies would assume his salary to receive a better package in return.
The Phillies can build their bullpen around the two veteran additions and 28-year-old Hector Neris, who has a 2.79 ERA in his last 155 innings. It’s an interesting group, one that will be leaned upon without significant additions to the starting rotation. Barring a surprise trade, the rotation additions will be more supplemental than major.
The Phillies will carry 13 pitchers for most of next season, it appears. That means an extra arm in the bullpen. Start with the three locks in Neris, Hunter, and Neshek, and that leaves five spots for this collection of arms, listed by innings pitched in the majors in 2017: Luis Garcia, Edubray Ramos, Adam Morgan, Hoby Milner, Ricardo Pinto, Yacksel Rios, Victor Arano, and Zac Curtis. That doesn’t include pitchers such as Mark Leiter Jr. and Jake Thompson, who have both started and relieved in the majors. They could fill either role next season; the Phillies were fond of how Leiter performed as the team’s swing man last season.
Garcia is something close to a lock. He is eligible for salary arbitration this winter and should receive a raise that puts his salary north of $1 million. Morgan, a lefthander, was a revelation in 2017. Ramos has a great arm but lacks consistency. Milner isn’t flashy but did his job. Among the youngest arms, Arano impressed the most during his late-season cameo.
The Phillies are open to ideas.
“We’re trying to lengthen in the bullpen with multiple players who have different skill sets, different strengths and weaknesses,” Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said. “A ground-ball guy. A strikeout guy. A lefty. A righty. Just making sure the manager has different players he can go to in different circumstances. Sometimes you might need the ground ball in the sixth. Sometimes it might be in the eighth. Sometimes it might be with traffic in the ninth. I think we need to be open-minded to all of those situations. I don’t think there’s any one set way we have to do it. We’ll adjust to the styles of our personnel.”
Last winter, the Phillies spent $18.2 million to buttress the bullpen with Neshek, Joaquin Benoit, and Jeanmar Gomez. Only Neshek was a success. The commitments — in both money and years — are more significant this offseason. It is an interesting dynamic given that, in the rise earlier this decade of analytical front offices, sizable deals to relievers were viewed as anachronistic. Finding an effective reliever did not require an expensive two- or three-year deal in free agency.
How great or sensible of an upgrade is it? The Phillies won 66 games in 2017. If they leap into the mid-70s this season, it will be because of progressions made by their young hitters. A better bullpen could mean a few more wins here and there, and that right now is enough for Phillies officials.