CLEARWATER, Fla. — Baseball’s recipe for success has some different spices these days, and long before the Phillies tantalized the taste buds by sprinkling free-agent starter Jake Arietta into the mix, they were already pleased with their bullpen ingredients.
The relief corps, in fact, was considered the strength of this ballclub when the Phillies arrived in spring training a little more than six weeks ago, and not even the signing of Arietta could change that.
“With the people we have here, we can be the best in baseball,” closer Hector Neris declared early in spring training. “We have a lot of guys who can pitch anywhere from the sixth through the ninth innings.”
Truth is, the bullpen was the best part of the Phillies a year ago, although the bar was admittedly low for a last-place team that finished with the third-worst record in baseball. The Phillies were 27th in runs scored and 21st in starting pitching earned run average, but 14th in bullpen ERA.
Neris was a big reason. He followed up his sensational first full year in the majors by posting a 3.01 ERA while converting 26 of 29 saves. Like his team, Neris was better after the all-star break, converting all 19 of his save opportunities while recording a 2.48 ERA.
The Phillies’ bullpen optimism, however, goes well beyond the closer, and the way new manager Gabe Kapler intends to use his relief corps figures to be among the most fascinating elements of the ballclub.
“I think what the industry has begun to value is relievers’ performance in general independent of saves,” Kapler said late in spring training. “So if you look at what has happened in the offseasons of 2016 and 2017, the guys who have been in the highest demand have just been performers in the bullpen. That’s why you see [Pat Neshek] and [Tommy] Hunter get such big deals. There had been a premium put on the track record of saves and this has nothing to do with saves. It has only to do with being able to get hitters out.”
The Phillies gave Neshek, 37, a two-year, $16.5 million contract to return from Colorado after he was the team’s lone all-star representative last season, and they paid Hunter, 31, a total of $18 million over two years after he posted a career-low 2.61 ERA with Tampa Bay in 2017. He will open the season on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, but the Phillies do not believe he will be sidelined very long.
Even before those signings of Neshek and Hunter, the Phillies were excited about the work of Luis Garcia, who bounced back from a difficult 2016 to post a career-low 2.65 ERA in 66 games last year.
“We started spring training thinking we had a few guys with really strong track records of success,” Kapler said. “But the emergence of Adam Morgan has created a dynamic in our bullpen where we feel like we have an additional really dangerous weapon to deploy. I just think he has the ability to get lefties and righties out and go through the big parts of opposing lineups.”
Righthander Edubray Ramos and lefty specialist Hoby Milner will also be in the mix. The long role was going to belong to Mark Leiter Jr. before an arm injury sidelined him late in spring training. Drew Hutchison took advantage of that opening with a strong spring training and will at least open the season with the team.
Defining the roles in the bullpen and watching over the maintenance of relievers are challenges for every manager.
“It is a beast,” Neshek said. “I know (Houston manager) A.J. Hinch said it was the toughest thing he had to do in his first couple years as a manager. He still doesn’t know how to do it, but it’s something he is working on and I’m sure Gabe is going to go through the same thing.”
It is somewhat of a mystery how Kapler plans to implement his bullpen. Is it possible he’ll use Neris against the heart of an order in the eighth inning rather than waiting to bring him in for a save opportunity in the ninth? Absolutely.
“If you look at what the Dodgers did in the playoffs and you look at how [closer] Kenley [Jansen] was used … he wasn’t always used in [a save] situation,” said Kapler, the former director of player development in Los Angeles. “The rules of the game in the playoffs are, ‘Let’s win this game.’ If you think about our games as every game is the playoffs … that’s the mentality we want to have.”
The unanswered question is whether a manager can handle a bullpen that way over 162 games. Having eight relievers, especially some that can throw more than one inning per night, makes it conceivable.
“We are always keeping the long view in mind and we are always keeping the health and well-being of our players in mind,” Kapler said. “But we aim to win every game, so when we get to the most important moment in that game, whenever that moment comes, we want to use our best reliever for that moment.”
Kapler believes he can feed that beast and still make sure he keeps his relievers happy and healthy.
“I think I’m different than some managers,” he said. “I love pitchers. There are some managers who just think they should let the pitching coach deal with the pitchers, but I love the pitchers and I love bullpen management. I love thinking about ways of putting them in their best position to succeed. I love thinking about ways to keep them healthy.”
The feeling as the Phillies embark on their new season is that they can win games because of their bullpen.
“I’ve been a part of some really good bullpens and this one is good,” Neshek said. “Some of the guys probably aren’t as recognizable to the rest of the league … but I think they will become known when we start winning games.”