The Phillies will be creative with their bullpen use

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Pat Neshek will have his right arm ready to go this season any time there is an out or two in the sixth inning. It has been that way his whole career, Neshek said. But the pitcher’s readiness might be more vital this season than any before.

Gabe Kapler will manage his bullpen with a fluid approach, likely using relievers based more on matchups rather than having set roles. The team might not even have a defined closer. Neshek pitched primarily in the seventh and eighth innings last season, but it would not be a surprise to see him enter in the sixth if there’s a big out to be had and he has good numbers against a certain batter.

“I think the bullpen here is built up where anyone can be used at any time. It will be fun,” Neshek said. “There will be some growing pains, but that’s the good thing with Gabe. He’s real open to communication. It’s not like last year, where there’s a problem and you have to go in [the manager’s office] five times to make sure you’re on the same page.”

The Phillies spent $34 million this winter to upgrade their bullpen and thus far have opted to leave the starting rotation alone. They will carry an extra reliever, hoping a bolstered bullpen can cover for an unproven rotation. And they will use that bullpen differently.

“We still want to be creative. We still have a mind-set that we want our pitchers to come in thinking of themselves as high-leverage, important-to-every-game relievers. And then use them according to the best possible matchup and the most important moments of the game,” Kapler said. “That’s not to say roles won’t become more clear and more defined. They might. But for right now, the way we want their mind-set coming into camp is, ‘I am a relief pitcher. I dominate important parts of the game. I am flexible. I am prepared.’ If that’s their mind-set, then we’re in good shape.”

Kapler has already shown a propensity to be different this spring. The Phillies shift their outfielders before every at-bat, and two even swapped positions for a batter Tuesday. They had an analyst from their research and development department in their dugout. Almost every player has worked this spring at a position that is not his regular spot. Using your best relievers earlier in the game — if that’s where the key outs are — might be radical compared to the way the Phillies have traditionally played. But it would fall in line with Kapler’s style.

“I think they’re going to use a little more of an approach where, say, Eric Hosmer is coming up and I haven’t really fared well against him; they’re going to throw a different guy,” Neshek said. “We’re not going to be put down to that seventh inning or that eighth inning or sometimes in the ninth; if there’s a better matchup, I think he’ll go with that.”

Neshek ended last season in a playoff race with the Rockies but turned down their offer this winter and chose to return to Philadelphia. He liked the staff Kapler assembled and built a good rapport last season with Rick Kranitz, who was elevated to pitching coach. The young Phillies team, Neshek said, reminds him of the Astros team he joined in 2015 that made a surprise run to the playoffs.

The Phillies signed him and Tommy Hunter on the same day. Their offseason plan was clear as they poured resources into the bullpen. And the manager’s plan to use those resources is starting to take shape.

“I think it’s a smart move. I think it’s always been a smart move,” Neshek said of the team’s decision to invest in the bullpen. “Ten years ago, I was sitting up and saying, ‘Why did they not spend on these guys?’ and ‘They’re giving this guy $100 million when you can have five dominant bullpen guys for half the price.’ Of course, that’s definitely shifted. You’ve seen teams like the Royals and Indians, and a lot of teams, that’s what makes them win. They get to that late part of the sixth inning and can kind of just shut it down. I think it’s a huge thing and you don’t really have to spend that much to do it. It’s definitely changing. In the past, you didn’t have to allot too much money to a bullpen. Now people are realizing the value of [what we do] every night.”