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March 16, 2023

Phillies 2023 preview: Is the bullpen finally a strength?

Once a glaring Achilles heel, the Phillies' relief corps might actually be one of its greatest strengths in 2023.

The Phillies are in the midst of an important spring training. After finishing the 2022 season just two wins shy of a World Series title, the defending NL champions will have to quiet the doubters again — this time with an even higher payroll and tougher expectations to match.

Philly currently carries +1600 odds to win the World Series in 2023, the eighth best via OddsShark. They are third to win the NL East (+325) behind the Braves and Mets.

Before the team hits the field in Arlington to open their 2023 campaign against the Texas Rangers on March 30, we're going to take a deep dive into each positional group.

Today's call is to the bullpen...

Scouting report

The Phillies' biggest weakness of the past few years might actually end up being one of their greatest strengths going into 2023. 

Heck, it even looked pretty strong in the back half of 2022, when everything was clicking up until the World Series spread things too thin. 

It definitely took time, and a fair share of bumps in the road for each, but Seranthony Domínguez, José Alvarado, Andrew Bellatti, and Connor Brogdon took the reins of the Phillies' bullpen on the way to the NL pennant and stand to be even better this season now that all four of them have their own clearly defined roles. 

The Phillies still needed more though – you can never have enough pitching after all, especially in October – so team president Dave Dombrowski added lefty specialist Matt Strahm and veteran Craig Kimbrel through signings, All-Star Gregory Soto via a five-player trade, and a couple of other unproven (but flexible) arms through low-cost exchanges (more on them in a second). 

On paper, this is shaping up to be the deepest relief corps the Phillies have had in a long time, and provided they all, at minimum, stay the course from 2022, it could be one of baseball's better pens as well – definitely a long way from the historically bad 2020 bullpen, at least. 

To compare, here's a look back at the Phillies' bullpen from the World Series and their numbers through the regular season:

 PitcherIP ERA WHIP Ks 
Seranthony Domínguez, R 51.0 3.00 1.137 61 
José Alvarado, L 51.0 3.18 1.216 81 
Andrew Bellatti, R 54.1 3.31 1.325 78 
Connor Brogdon, R 44.0 3.27 1.250 50 
David Robertson, R 23.1 2.70 1.371 30 
Zach Eflin, R*7.2 1.17 0.555 
Brad Hand, L 45.0 2.80 1.333 38 
Nick Nelson, R 68.2 4.85 1.485 69 

*Eflin's numbers after returning from injury in September.

And what's projected to start 2023 at the end of this month, again using 2022's numbers and with the new additions in bold:

 PitcherIP ERA WHIP Ks 
Seranthony Domínguez, R 51.0 3.00 1.137 61 
José Alvarado, L 51.0 3.18 1.216 81 
Andrew Bellatti, R 54.1 3.31 1.325 78 
Connor Brogdon, R 44.0 3.27 1.250 50 
Gregory Soto, L 60.1 3.28 1.37660 
Matt Strahm, L44.2 3.83 1.231 52 
Craig Kimbrel, R 60.0 3.75 1.317 72 
Nick Nelson, R 68.2 4.85 1.485 69 

Admittedly, you can only glean so much from last season's numbers – manager Rob Thomson's decided usage and holds of 1-2 run leads in the early going will be the first real tests out of the gate. But up front, the Phils have added more innings and a good bit more strikeouts, which should, in theory, mean a lot more options late in games.

Now on to those aforementioned unproven arms. Back in January, the Phillies made two minor depth trades, acquiring Erich Uelmen from the Cubs for cash and Yunior Marte from the Giants for former top-10 prospect Erik Miller. 

Both made their major league debuts last season, and while they didn't put up stellar lines, they do come with breaking pitches that, if further honed, could serve well in the middle innings. Moreover, it's their ability to jump between the minors and the majors that makes them valuable right now, with two options remaining on each's contract. 

Additionally, Nick Nelson and camp hopeful Michael Plassmeyer also have a couple of minor-league options each to work with over the course of a long season. 

"You have to have a couple of guys in your bullpen who have options in case you need a pitcher, in case you need length, or in case you need to swap somebody out," Thomson said back in November before any of the offseason moves were made. "You can't have eight guys down there with 10 years of service that you can't send to Triple-A."

A lot to work with out of the pen this season, for the first time in a long time.

NL East picture

Relievers can often be a tricky group to project because things can change dramatically from one year to the next, even with the same people in place. 

Still, as a means of comparison to work off of, here are the NL East's bullpens from 2022 and how they ranked across the majors based on combined ERA (via FanGraphs):

Team '22 Rank ERA WAR 
Atlanta 3.03 7.6 
N.Y. Mets 10 3.55 4.4 
Washington 15 3.84 2.1 
Miami 22 4.15 1.5 
Phillies 23 4.27 5.1 

Obviously, the Phillies had clear room for improvement there, and hope that they properly addressed it over the winter with the additions of Strahm, Kimbrel, and Soto. 

What's interesting, however, is that the Phils' bullpen combined produced the second-best WAR within the division and the ninth-best in the majors, which is perhaps a stronger indicator of how much better they got as the postseason push wore on. 

The future

With the Phillies' window of contention open, the bullpen, like nearly every part of the team is existing very much in the present. 

But that doesn't mean guys aren't on their way up. 

Lefthander Cristopher Sánchez has been on the bubble for a bit now and will likely work his way into more relief appearances in 2023 before he's potentially looked at for a spot in the starting rotation. 

Griff McGarry, one of the Phillies' three top pitching prospects, could also make his way up to the majors as a reliever at some point to get his feet wet and not keep him stewing in Triple-A for too long. 

There's also righthander Alex McFarlane, the club's eighth-ranked prospect, who made his minor league debut last season with three starts for Single-A Clearwater. Before that, however, the 21-year-old was a highly effective reliever out of the pen for the University of Miami.

Phillies season preview
C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | DH | OF | SP | RP

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