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December 06, 2016

Winter Meetings Notes: Phils could have another open competition for closer job this spring

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – First, it was David Hernandez, the veteran set-up man acquired days before they traded incumbent Ken Giles.

Then non-roster invitees Andrew Bailey, Edward Mujica, and Ernesto Frieri, who had all held the job before, emerged as possibilities in spring training. Dalier Hinojosa felt like a good bet at one point.

This was March of 2016, when the only roster battle possibly more intriguing than the fifth starter job was the absolute uncertainty surrounding who the heck Pete Mackanin would call on to close games for him when the 2016 regular season began. The uncertainty spilled into an ugly first week of the season, when the Phillies bullpen blew up in each of the first day games.

Eventually, Jeanmar Gomez saved the back of the bullpen.

Gomez is back for 2017, but whether or not he’s penciled into the ninth-inning role is uncertain. In fact, after watching Hector Neris emerge as a strikeout-happy set-up man last year, and watching the front office add reliable veteran relievers Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek this offseason, you could foresee a scenario where last spring repeats itself … but with better options this time around.

“As we sit here today I think we’d probably enter spring training with a competition,” general manager Matt Klentak said Tuesday at the Winter Meetings. “We would hope not to make the decision until – we’d hope to make it sooner than Opening Day. But yeah, right now with the group we have we have several candidates for that role.”

The Phillies finalized a deal for one of those candidates at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, MD., when they officially announced the signing of the 39-year-old Benoit.

Benoit was great for the Toronto Blue Jays in the final two months of the 2016 season (0.38 ERA) and saved 24 games for the American League Central champion Detroit Tigers in 2013. But Benoit is probably more of a candidate to be a set-up man.

Regardless of role, his new boss was high on him.

“We drilled down into the data (strikeout rate, walk rate, batted ball tendencies) are there are some underlying things that he’s always done in his career that we think make him — we think there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll maintain his level of performance that he’s demonstrated over the last handful of years,” Klentak said, who signed the veteran to a one-year, $7.5 million deal. “This guy has been really consistent for the better part of a decade. And especially in bullpens, which tend to be fairly volatile as a group, this guy has been the model of consistency.”

If the Phillies hold onto everyone, Neris still probably has the best stuff to close. Perhaps Benoit was pitch the eighth and the trio of Gomez, Neshek (a sidearmer) and Edubray Ramos will handle the seventh.

But, there’s still time to sort all of that out, of course.

“We don’t have a premier closer, which we would love to have, but last year we didn’t either,” Mackanin said. “But as Matt said (Gomez) was darn good for five months. Someone is going to be capable of doing that. What we have now is a deeper bullpen with more experienced pitchers. … If Gomez ends up closing, or ends up in the fifth or sixth, we are deeper and better because of that.

“We’re going to have a lot of flexibility with the fact that Neris closed a few games, Gomez closed a lot of games, Benoit has pitched late in the game, Neshek has qualified as an experienced relief pitcher. That gives me a lot of latitude. Hey, Neshek might pitch the eighth inning on a given night. I can do that more often. I can go to my better guys - because I have better guys - more often.”

As for tendrering a contract last week to Gomez, who could earn in the neighborhood of $4-$5 million despite a dreadful fine six weeks of the season, Klentak basically said Tuesday that it was a no-brainer.

“It was important for us as we went through the decision-making process, it was important for us to remember that this guy was really good for the first five months,” Klentak said. “And he was not on our radar to be the closer early, but he took the bull by the horns in the first week of the season and never really looked back. It’s easy to only remember what he did in September, because that’s what’s most fresh in our mind now, but this guy was pretty good for the first five months.

“As it turned out, it was not a particularly tough decision to tender him. Whether he pitches the ninth, or the eighth, or in a multi-inning role, which he’s also done, we think Jeanmar Gomez can provide plenty of value in any of those roles.”

The Winter Meetings end early on Thursday, following the Rule 5 Draft at 9 a.m. But the Phillies may beat that pesky D.C. traffic and hit the road before that, too.

With a 40-man roster currently topped out at 40, following the signing of Benoit (and subsequent decision to designate Michael Mariot for assignment), the Phillies do not have a vacancy to fit a Rule 5 player. So the Phillies – who are in line to pick 8th – may pass on the Rule 5 draft.

“Right now we’re at 40, and unless something changes then yes we’ll sit out,” Klentak said. “But we spent some time this morning as a group preparing for the Rule 5 Draft, lining up our boards, so that if a transaction takes place between now and Thursday then we’re ready to take action.”

With their prospects further away and more flexibility on their big league roster, the Phillies were able to keep Rule 5 picks Odubel Herrera and Tyler Goeddel on their 25-man roster in each of the last two years. But with 11 prospects added to the 40-man roster last month, the Phillies aren’t expected to have as much flexibility this year, especially when some of those prospects (including Nick Williams and Dylan Cozens) need to be added to that active 25-man roster.

And that also doesn’t include prospects like J.P. Crawford, who isn’t on the 40-man yet but would have to be added (to that, and to the 25-man) when he’s ready for a big league promotion this summer.

As for a player the Phillies could lose from their organization in Thursday's Rule 5 Draft, outfielder Andrew Pullin seems like a good bet. Pullin, a 23-year-old former fifth-round pick who hit .322 with 14 home runs and an .885 OPS between Double-A Reading and Class A Clearwater  last season, was listed as one of the best left-handed bats available in Baseball America's recent Rule 5 Draft preview

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