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April 07, 2019

What they're saying: Will bullpen woes make Phillies reconsider signing Craig Kimbrel?

Sunday is a beautiful day for baseball, and quite the opposite from when the Phillies opened their weekend series against the Twins in freezing cold rain on Friday night. For fans heading down to the ballpark, they're hoping the Phillies come away with a win and avoid dropping their first series of the season. 

After taking the opener, the Phillies missed out on their opportunity to seal a series win on Saturday, in part because their offense fell flat for the first time all season, but also because their bullpen allowed a one-run deficit to inflate to a three-run deficit at the worst possible time. 

And despite the Phillies boasting a 5-2 record to start the season, the team's bullpen struggles have become a common concern this season, one that would be a lot more visible if not for the team's ability to simply outscore opponents on most days. 

Still, when you look down the numbers for Phillies relievers, there's cause for that concern.

Pat Neshek 4.20.00 0.643
Adam Morgan 3.20.00 0.545
Hector Neris 3.24.91 0.545
David Robertson 3.012.00 3.667
Juan Nicasio 3.00.00 1.333
Edubray Ramos 2.20.00 1.500
Seranthony Dominguez 2.115.43 2.143
Jose Alvarez 1.113.50 2.250

As you can see, not everyone has been an issue. In fact, it's really just two relievers that have been the biggest culprits, both because of their numbers, and the important role they play in the Phillies bullpen. That's David Robertson and Seranthony Dominguez, the two guys who were expected to anchor the back end of the Phillies bullpen this season. 

Others, however, like Pat Neshek, have been lights out. In fact, Neshek has been pretty dominant since joining the Phillies.

Adam Morgan, Edubray Ramos and newcomer Juan Nicasio have also yet to surrender an earned run this season, but none of those three came in with the kind of expectations placed on Robertson, a proven veteran, and Dominguez, a second-year player with a ton of potential. 

Sure, it's a small sample size, but the bullpen was expected to be one of the strengths of this team, and definitely the stronger arm of the Phillies pitching staff, with the starting rotation remaining unchanged from last season. Now, with the Phillies' third series of the season coming to a close on Sunday, it appears the bullpen is a major cause for concern. Of course, it's still early and guys like Robertson and Dominguez could easily get back on track with a few solid appearances — and there are other options out there should the Phillies decide they need some help. 

That's what what we'll focus on in today's edition of What They're Saying... 

The reason for the concern

Tom Moore | Allentown Morning Call

As we previously mentioned, it hasn't been all bad for the Phillies bullpen. But there's definitely been more bad than good — or maybe it just feels that way because the bad has been, uh, really bad. Like when Robertson walked in the winning run in Wednesday's 9-8 loss to the Nationals. 

The bullpen, which was projected to be stronger than the starting rotation, has been more of a concern, especially free agent signee David Robertson (12.00 ERA) and second-year man Seranthony Dominquez, whose ERA rose to 15.43 after a three-run homer to pinch-hitter Eddie Rosario in the top of the ninth Saturday. Situation left-hander Jose Alvarez (13.50) has also struggled.

Though Dominguez's velocity is down, he said Saturday that he feels fine. He hasn't pitched nearly as well since his lights-out first 19 outings last spring, which followed a quick rise through the minors and transition from being a starter.

While Pat Neshek (4 2/3 innings), Adam Morgan (3 2/3) and Juan Nicasio (three innings) have yet to allow a run and are the primary reasons the 'pen's ERA is 4.26, Robertson and Dominguez are the most important relievers because they're the primary eighth- and ninth-inning guys. They have to get their acts together.  []

A slower Seranthony

Jim Salisbury | NBC Sports Philadelphia

One of the issues with Dominguez has been a slight dip in his velocity. Both he and the team maintain that there is nothing wrong, but it's never a good thing to see one of your power relievers losing pop on his fastball.

In three outings totaling 2 1/3 innings in the early season, Dominguez has given up three hits, including a homer, two walks, a hit batsman and four runs. The power-armed righty, obviously, has had command issues and that can happen early in a season, especially with the natural cutting action he features on his fastball. But the bigger concern is a slight drop in velocity. Dominguez’ fastball averaged nearly 98 mph last season. It was down a little more than one mph on Saturday, according to Statcast...

Dominguez, 24, burst on the scene as a weapon in the first half of last season — he debuted with 15 2/3 scoreless innings and had a 1.85 ERA in his first 34 appearances — but tailed off down the stretch. He pitched to a 5.21 ERA over his final 19 appearances from Aug. 5 to the end of last season. Now, he’s debuted poorly this season.

While there doesn’t appear to be any concerns about Dominguez’ physical health, it is worth considering what these struggles can do to his confidence. Relievers thrive on that magic potion.  []

Can they figure it out?

Bill Evans |

If the Phillies really plan to make a deep run this season, they might have to make an addition to their bullpen. Luckily for them, there's still a proven closer out there in case Robertson and Dominguez can't figure it out.

David Robertson and Seranthony Dominguez have combined to allow eight earned runs in 5 2/3 innings in the early going.

Again, it’s early. Dominguez actually had a decent September after an awful August last year and solid spring, so two bad games in a row is reason for concern but perhaps not panic.

And Robertson – a veteran – will likely figure it out.

But they could probably use another back end piece – particularly one with closing experience – especially with Tommy Hunter’s injury and Dominguez being an electric, yet still young reliever trying to figure it out...

Yes, Craig Kimbrel is out there, but the Phillies – like all teams – are rightfully wary of a long-term deal and if Kimbrel would have been willing to sign for short-term money, he’d probably be in a uniform by now.  []

So why is Kimbrel a free agent?

Tim Kelly | Phillies Nation

The Nationals are suffering from similar bullpen issues as the Phillies, and that could also put them in contention for Kimbrel — the Braves have been mentioned as well. So why is Kimbrel still a free agent?

The Phillies, Nationals and really, the entire league having reservations about signing Kimbrel this offseason made sense at one point. Kimbrel had a very good 2018 regular season, with 42 saves, a 2.74 ERA and a 3.13 FIP. It was a step back from his dominant 2017 season – where he posted a 1.43 ERA, a 1.42 FIP and a 3.3 fWAR – but he was still one of the better closers in the sport during the regular season. However, Kimbrel ran out of gas entirely in the postseason, posting a 5.91 ERA in the Red Sox World Series run.

Not only did Kimbrel’s postseason run leave some with a bad taste in their mouth, but he also reportedly opened the offseason seeking a six-year deal. Even at age 30 – he’ll be 31 in May – six years is a difficult ask. If Kimbrel became a free-agent after 2017, there may have been a market for that, or that may have been a realistic starting point. But after his disappointing postseason run, asking for north of $100 million came off as delusions of grandeur from Kimbrel’s camp.

But for any concerns there may be about Kimbrel, it is fair to be flabbergasted by his continued presence on the free-agent market. His 211 ERA+ is the best in baseball history among relievers, topping Hall of Famers Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Dennis Eckersley, among others. His 333 career saves are 14th in baseball history, and the most among active closers. This is an all-time great, one that may not have six more elite years left, but certainly would help a postseason contender immediately.  []

Kimbrel not the only option

Mark Polishuk | MLB Trade Rumors

In their offseason recap, MLB Trade Rumors mentioned the Phillies previously reported interest in Kimbrel. They also mentioned that teams would likely not sign him until after June's draft, so they wouldn't have to surrender a pick. But if they're going to wait that long — and if Kimbrel still wants a long-term deal — there's nothing stopping the Phillies from looking elsewhere ahead of the July 31 trade deadline. 

Robertson, Alvarez, and Nicasio weren’t the only relievers on the Phillies’ target list, as they also looked far and wide for bullpen arms.  This search took them in some interesting directions, as Philadelphia reportedly had interest in signing Nathan Eovaldi as a reliever, which seems like it a bit of a head-scratcher since Eovaldi was getting starting offers from seemingly half the league.  Edwin Diaz was also considered by the Phillies before Seattle dealt Diaz elsewhere within the NL East, and free agent closer Craig Kimbrel was also linked to the Phils in rumors.

After Harper signed, some reports suggested that Philadelphia could turn its attention to Keuchel or Kimbrel, though the Phillies only seemed interested in either pitcher on a short-term commitment.  Over a month after those reports, Keuchel and Kimbral are both still available should the Phillies want to pounce.  While there hasn’t yet been any indication that Keuchel or Kimbrel would be willing to settle for one-year deals, you have to figure that possibility must exist now that Opening Day has come and gone.  Either pitcher could be waiting until after the draft (so teams no longer have to surrender picks to sign them, as per the qualifying offer) to finally agree to a prorated deal, potentially just covering the remainder of 2019 so they could try again in the 2019-20 free agent market.

Rather than signing a coming-in-cold Keuchel or Kimbrel, however, there’s nothing stopping Philadelphia from adding to its rotation or bullpen via a midseason trade.  The Harper/McCutchen signings left the Phils with something of an outfield surplus, so the likes of Nick Williams or (when healthy) Roman Quinn could be dangled in a deal.  The farm system has been thinned out by the losses of Crawford, Sanchez, and Alfaro, though some interesting prospects remain if the organization again wants to move more young talent in another win-now strike.  []

It's definitely going to be worth keeping an eye on the reliever market — and the development of the Phillies farm talent — ahead of the deadline. 

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