Philadelphia Phillies fans had to endure months and months of Bryce Harper “will he/won’t he” speculation last offseason.
This year, the Phillies udnerwent more personnel changes, beginning with hiring manager Joe Girardi. They addressed some of their roster issues with the free agent acquisitions of starting pitcher Zack Wheeler and shortstop Didi Gregorius, but failed to dive head-first into the reliever market and bolster an average bullpen.
Last week, the Philadelphia front office finally brought in some help, but not in the way fans had probably hoped. Instead of making a big splash and busting through a luxury tax threshold that was once considered not a problem, the Phillies opted to play it safe, dishing out minor league contracts to Drew Storen, Bud Norris and Francisco Liriano.
This doesn’t exactly instill confidence: they’re bringing back a relief group that finished with the eighth-worst fWAR in all of baseball and 16th-best ERA in 2019.
Hector Neris will remain the closer after recording 28 saves and a 2.93 ERA in 68 appearances, while the middle relievers returning include Seranthony Dominguez (UCL injury in 2019), Jose Alvarez (3.36 ERA) and Victor Arano (three appearances), amongst others.
They don’t even get David Robertson back, who will miss all of 2020 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Despite his early struggles in Philly prior to injury, his return would’ve felt like a free agent signing on its own.
Dive deeper into the matter at hand, and the understanding that there isn’t too much help on the way becomes clearer. The Phillies farm system contains six pitching prospects in their top 10, led by duo Spencer Howard and Adonis Medina, but all seem to have a future target of cracking into a starting rotation.
Of course, the possibility of transitioning from a starter to reliever is always an option, but that doesn’t appear to be on the table.
In other words, what you see now is what you’ll see in April.
This past year, Philadelphia was 23-25 in tie games from the seventh inning on, which is cause for concern when compared to the NL East champion Atlanta Braves, who were 25-22 in the same situation.
The Braves signed All-Star reliever Will Smith. The Phillies signed 36-year-old Liriano.
Granted, the former Pittsburgh Pirate made 69 relief appearances last season, accumulating a 5-3 record with a 3.47 ERA and very well could be looked at in the future to start if needed, but this was (obviously) not the way the front office wanted to move the needle.
Can you blame them?
According to Forbes‘ Anthony Louis Stitt, general manager Matt Klentak spent $57 million on the trio of Robertson, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter. One is already out for the season, the other two are gone and forgotten.
One potential bright spot for this group could stem from the changes to the coaching staff. With Girardi’s desire to manage the perfect game and the addition of pitching coach Bryan Price, who knows? Maybe instead of never knowing when they’ll be sending in and using for a single batter, Girardi will be able to develop roles for his players and create some degree of consistency when it comes to the pen.
Playoff contention would also do wonders for the Phillies, as the market surrounding the trade deadline often includes high-end relievers, though usually for a steeper price.
For now, the roller coaster of watching the Philadelphia bullpen remains exactly that.
Jason Kates is a writer for Bronx to Bushville.