Bullpens are the most unpredictable part of roster building. One year a unit can be one of the best in baseball, the next a few key pitchers drop off and the end of games become a lot less secure.
The Phillies bullpen started the 2017 season the way the team did—shaky. But as the season went along, some younger arms in the bullpen came into their own and by the end of the year, a promising young core of relievers emerged.
That is no guarantee they will be effective this year, but it's a good thing for rookie manager Gabe Kapler to have.
Today, as we did with the starting rotation last week, we will take an early look at the pieces of the 2018 bullpen and how they will fall into place. For this analysis, it will be assumed that Kapler uses the traditional seven-man bullpen.
Hector Neris comes into the season ensconced as the closer.
After a fantastic 2016 as the setup man, it's still slightly mystifying that Jeanmar Gomez was given the closer role again coming out of Spring Training. Gomez had been given the job in '16 because he was the first man in the bullpen to convert a save chance but Neris was always better suited for the ninth inning role, with a mid-90s fastball and a wipeout splitter. Gomez lost the closer's job within a week this past season, and Neris finally got his first save chance on April 20 and kept the job for the rest of the season.
His strikeout rate dropped from 11.4 to 10.4 per nine innings in '17, but he also dropped his walk rate slightly. His overall WHIP was up, but he still converted 26 of 29 chances and only gave up over one run in an outing three times.
Barring any massive drop-offs—always at least a remote possibility when talking about relievers—Neris will be the closer long-term.
Luis Garcia yo-yoed between Triple-A Lehigh Valley and the majors in 2016. When he was on the big league roster he often got shelled, pitching to a 6.46 ERA in only 15 games at the major league level.
What saw Garcia stick in the majors, which he finally did by May 2017, was a major improvement in control. He posted career bests in walks per nine innings, strikeouts per walk, and WHIP in 2017, a huge reason he finished the year with a 2.65 ERA in 71.1 innings and ended the year as Pete Mackanin's top setup man.
He doesn't strike out as many men as a man whose average fastball velocity is 97.22 (7.6 K/9 in '17 and 7.8 for his career), but if he can keep his walks down, he should be the main bridge to Neris, barring any additions from outside the organization.
If last year was any sign, two southpaws will go into Spring Training as prohibitive favorites to break camp in the bullpen.
The first is Adam Morgan. Four years ago, Morgan was one of the Phillies' top pitching prospects, a starter with electric stuff. But a shoulder injury robbed him of much of his velocity and derailed his career.
Moving to the bullpen did wonders for Morgan. His velocity improved dramatically, hitting 95 MPH on average toward the end of the year. His K/9 rate of 10.4 was by far a career high, and he dropped his WHIP from 1.5 in '16 to 1.262, just over the mark he set his rookie year.
More important were his platoon splits—he limited lefties to a .193 average. Righties fared much better against him, but his starting experience allows him to be more than just a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out Guy, for those unaware of the acronym) and deal with righties over a full inning so long as he doesn't get too overexposed. He got better in close games, limiting opponents on both sides of the plate to a .159 average and posting a 0.89 WHIP.
The title of LOOGY fits better on Hoby Milner, who pitched well after his call-up on June 20. While he walked far more batters than is preferable (4.6 per nine innings), he used a funky delivery to limit lefties to a .159 average and finished the year with a 2.01 ERA in 37 appearances and 31.1 innings. He'll likely be Kapler's matchup lefty out of the bullpen.
Middle relief is always where a non-roster surprise seems to pop up every Spring Training. Barring one of those, the favorites for spots are the talented but inconsistent Edubray Ramos and the promising but untested Victor Arano.
Ramos is probably best known for his long-running feud with the New York Mets' Asdrubal Cabrera, which reaches back to Cabrera's epic (and rather bush league) bat flip on a walk-off homer in September 2016. The next April proved Ramos had a long memory as he fired a fastball over Cabrera's head.
Ramos has a lot of talent and a big arm. His strikeout numbers (11.7 K/9) show he can be an elite reliever. The catch, as it is with most young players, is his control. His walk numbers skyrocketed in 2017, going from 2.5 per nine in '16 to 4.4 last year. He has the chance to be a late-inning guy, but he'll stick in the sixth or seventh unless he gets his walks under control.
Arano was impressive as a September call-up, giving up only two runs and six hits in 10 innings while striking out 13 and walking only four. He needs to be tested over the course of a full season, and more than anyone else mentioned so far will have to earn his spot in Clearwater, but if he doesn't struggle this spring, he can stake a claim in this bullpen for a long time.
The last spot
We're left with one spot open, and it's anyone's guess who might occupy it. It may be beneficial for the Phils to add a more experienced pitcher to help mentor the young pitchers. Guys like Addison Reed, Bryan Shaw, or Brandon Morrow are available in free agency and would come fairly cheap. All three could serve as a primary setup man and bump everyone else down a peg behind Neris.
If they don't go that route, they may tap whoever loses out on the final spot in the starting rotation—a list that includes Nick Pivetta, Jake Thompson, Mark Leiter, Jr, Ben Lively, and Zach Eflin—as a swingman. Or a non-roster invitee could step up and claim the spot. If there's one thing that's certain about bullpen construction, it's that nothing is certain.