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Life as a relief pitcher comes at you fast, especially in the 2020 climate when teams across Major League Baseball are pinching pennies.

Tim Dierkes and Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors recently released their 2020 non-tender candidates, and on the list was a Philadelphia Phillie that may surprise some: reliever Seranthony Dominguez.

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Seranthony Dominguez’s future is unclear. (Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)
Dominguez, still only 25, burst onto the scene in 2018, posting a 2.95 ERA and 2.85 FIP across 53 games for the Phillies. There was a fairly universal belief at the time that Dominguez had a chance to become a stalwart in the bullpen, and potentially the best homegrown reliever in the history of the franchise.

To this point, that’s not how things have panned out.

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Though Dominguez opened the 2019 season at the forefront of Gabe Kapler’s bullpen, he was underwhelming in 27 games, posting a 4.01 ERA. On June 5, 2019, Dominguez left an appearance in San Diego with a UCL injury, and he’s yet to return to a major league mound.

If you need an idea of how long it’s been since Dominguez last pitched for the Phillies, consider this: in the same San Diego series that Dominguez was injured in, Andrew McCutchen tore his ACL, Jay Bruce made his Phillies’ debut and Adam Haseley made his major league debut. Heck, Odubel Herrera’s most recent appearance with the Phillies came within 10 days of Dominguez suffering his initial UCL injury. So it’s been a minute.

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The Phillies have an open mindset in terms of roster retooling this offseason.
Just a couple of days before the turn of the new year, the Philadelphia Phillies acquired an intriguing left-handed reliever as part of a three-way trade with the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers.

In return for trading fellow southpaw Garrett Cleavinger to the Dodgers, the Phillies received Jose Alvarado, while the Dodgers sent the Rays first-base prospect Dillon Paulson and a player-to-be-named later.

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The move marked the first trade made with the Phillies organization by president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, as well as general manager Sam Fuld — in an effort to counting retooling a bullpen that saw an all-time second-worst 7.06 ERA this past season.

When asked by Kevin Frandsen in a recent Pine Tar for Breakfast podcast as to where the Phillies will go next, Fuld said the organization will “keep its options open.”

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“It’s hard to say what specifically we’re going to target. We just don’t know,” replied Fuld, who said he believes it is smart to be “nimble.”

“We don’t want to get tunnel vision on a certain type of player, or even a certain type of reliever,” Fuld said. “It’s not like just because we have one lefty that throws 99 that we would turn down another.”

“I think the bullpen will continue to be something we look at.”

The Phillies have been creative this offseason in adding relievers, most of which have come on minor-league deals with spring training invites. Most recently, they signed right-handed veterans Neftali Feliz and Michael Ynoa to such deals. In early December, the Phillies claimed fellow righty Ian Hamilton off waivers from the Seattle Mariners.

While Alvarado, Feliz, Hamilton, and Ynoa are among the external additions already made this offseason, some relievers from the 2020 bullpen are also being brought back. The Phillies re-signed right-handers David Hale and Hector Neris to one-year contracts. Seranthony Dominguez was also re-signed to a one-year deal, however he is expected to miss most of 2021 due to Tommy John surgery.

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All signs are pointing in the positive direction that the Phillies acknowledge the bullpen needs a serious makeover. But, the Phils also acknowledge they will not just focus in on one area, and will instead be “nimble” in what moves they make.

Time is ticking fast, as pitchers and catchers are set to report to Clearwater, Florida — marking the start of the 2021 baseball season — just next month.

Though it was concerning that Dominguez never returned in 2019, he seemingly went through a normal offseason last winter, and came to spring training hoping to make an impact for Joe Girardi in 2020. Unfortunately for Dominguez, he suffered a setback in his first Grapefruit League appearance, and after attempting to rehab the injury previously, it was determined this time that the Dominican-born righty needed Tommy John surgery.

To make matters worse, Dominguez returned home during the initial COVID-19 shutdown, and did so without having the procedure completed. Dominguez wouldn’t ultimately undergo Tommy John surgery until July 30, 2020, not only ending his 2020 season, but making it very possibly he won’t be able to pitch at all in 2021. If all goes perfectly, Dominguez won’t be able to contribute until August or September of 2021, and as the Phillies learned with David Robertson this past season, there is no guarantee that setbacks don’t occur in recovery from the procedure.

Dominguez is projected by Spotrac to make $900,000 in 2021, his first year of arbitration eligibility. (Dominguez has 2.147 years of service time, meaning he qualifies as a “Super Two” player.) Knowing he may not pitch in 2021, Dominguez’s representatives could settle for a lower amount with the Phillies to avoid the potential of being non-tendered. Then again, it’s been quite a while since Dominguez has appeared in a game and his long-term future in the sport is very much in question. That makes you think Dominguez would be motivated to make as much money as possible while he’s still in the sport.

In any other year, a major-market team like the Phillies wouldn’t think twice about tendering Dominguez a contract, knowing that the possibility exists that they lose an arbitration case and have to pay a little more than they would like to. However, managing partner John Middleton was non-committal about how much the team will be able to spend next season when discussing the matter in October.

“I can’t tell you. Can you tell me what the governor [of Pennsylvania] and the mayor of Philadelphia are going to allow us to have next year in the way of fans? Because if you do, you know something that I don’t,” Middleton said.

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There’s hope that a COVID-19 vaccine could be widely available at some time early next spring, though that’s not yet certain. Currently, there are over 279,000 reported cases of the virus in Pennsylvania. With rates skyrocketing, indoor dining will be banned for the remainder of the calendar year beginning Friday. The limited attendance that had been allowed at Eagles games will be scrapped. So it’s truly hard to know if the Phillies really will host the Atlanta Braves on April 1, 2020, and whether and to what extent fan attendance will be allowed.

In October, Kaleel Weatherly and Ryan Sharrow of Philadelphia Business Journal noted that according to the annual Team Marketing Report, the Phillies lost $186.1 million in 2020 because of fans not being able to attend games. Technically, you can’t lose money that you never had, but how much teams spend in a given year is directly related to how much the organization projects that they will make. Lord willing, 2021 will be a more financially fruitful year for everyone than 2020, but the Phillies are probably smart to assume that they won’t bring in the same amount they would in a normal year.

What wouldn’t be smart would be for an organization desperate for impact relief pitching to make the short-sighted move of non-tendering Dominguez over what will likely amount to a salary of less than $1 million. Dominguez is under team control through 2024, and the possibility exists that he gets healthy and returns to being an impact reliever, perhaps as soon as the waning weeks of the 2021 season.

Of course, the flip side of that is that there’s a very real possibility that for as hard as Dominguez works, his body just doesn’t cooperate and he’s never able to reach his ceiling. Injuries are an unfortunate reality of sports. Even if Dominguez ultimately does return to health, he may not be available until 2022, and if the Phillies are self-imposing a budget because of financial uncertainty in the world, close to $1 million may not be seen as an insignificant amount by the organization’s decisions makers.

This isn’t a discussion about whether the Phillies should non-tender Dominguez – of course they shouldn’t, and the guess here is that he’ll ultimately remain with the organization in 2021. But is it impossible that Dominguez gets non-tendered this winter in an effort to save money, perhaps with the hope of bringing him back at a lower price but no guarantee of that happening? No, it’s not.

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In some ways, anything like this is folly when a team has already hired Dave Dombrowski as President of Baseball. The Phillies clearly aren’t going to wait around for Theo Epstein to finish his year with a Eurorail pass as he takes up poetry or dyes his hair purple or whatever means of self-discovery he has planned for his year off. The Phillies likely won’t embark on some multi-year reshaping either, based on Dombrowski’s history. Maybe Dombrowski wants to try something new, but considering what the Phillies have already invested and their lack of prospects, they’re not itching to take any steps backward either.

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And nor should they. While spending three straight years in the absolute pit of the middle suggests an incurable inertia, you could also make the argument that it means they’re also not that far away. The more you go all out and still end up as far from the horizon as you were, the more it feels intractable. But the Phillies aren’t there yet.

So what faces Dombrowski and the Fightin’s? There are a couple of obvious problems. The glaring one, with the gas leak and flames shooting out of the doorway, is the bullpen. This pretty much tells you everything you need to know about 2020:

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Over a full baseball season, that would be 37 losses. That’s NC-17. The pen wasn’t healthy, but even if it had been, it was filled with far too many relievers over 30 who, when they got really volatile, walked way too many hitters. Most of that unit has been culled, but at the moment this is who’s listed as the Philly pen on RosterResource from FanGraphs:

From these minor leaguers, the higher-ups expected one mid-rotation piece and –if lucky– a five-slot hurler or setup man. Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez turned out to be those two. With progress, Eflin could even be a two-slot arm, and Velasquez is a candidate for a “seventh or eighth inning” role.

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Many locals bemoan the trade of Sixto Sanchez for Realmuto because they consider the flamethrower to be an ace. Realistically, Sanchez may not make the Miami Marlins roster in spring training. Translation: He only baffles clubs in his first start against them.

Sanchez, 22:

First starts: 6 Gms., 37 Inn., 12 R, 12 ER, 3-1, a 2.92 ERA with 35 SO and 7 BB.
Other starts: 3 Gms., 10 Inn., 13 R, 13 ER, 0-2, an 11.70 ERA with 6 SO and 9 BB.
The Fightins hoped Jorge Alfaro, Nick Williams, and two starters from their restructuring deals would pan out. Then, the farm system and free agency would plug the holes in the offense and overall pitching.

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For ‘20, the New York Yankees spent $324 million for Gerrit Cole as the final piece for a World Series victory, then they would take a one-year hit with the Luxury Tax penalty before sliding under the CBT for ‘21. Well, it worked on paper after 103 triumphs in ‘19, didn’t it?

In 2018, the Phillies were a surprising 80-82 after a 66-win 2017. But 2019’s relief corps had eight injured relievers, and only Hector Neris and Jose Alvarez were healthy. And why was 2020’s pen without Robertson, Seranthony Dominguez, Ranger Suarez and Victor Arano? Surgery or the coronavirus!

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Hector Neris, Connor Brogdon, Ranger Suarez, David Hale, Victor Arano, Ian Hamilton, Johan Quezada, and Cole Irvin. That’s a whole lot of not much.

The Dombrowski method says throw $10-12 million a year at Liam Hendriks and call it a day. And the Phillies very well might, and should, do that. Yes, Hendriks is over 30 as well, and his past two years of dominance are largely based on a jump in velocity that won’t hold forever. Still, a three-year deal probably gets you at least two years of massive improvement at the sharp end of the pen.

That doesn’t mean the Phillies should stop there. They should have a ton of cash to spend, but might be pulling the same bullshit act that you see other big market teams not named the Dodgers are pulling after one season of losses. While they’ve denied that Zack Wheeler is on the block after that rumor spilled out of the generally waste-filled “Buster Olney Container,” the fact that it appeared at all is worrying for Phillies fans. Still, even with estimated arbitration costs, they’re on the hook for about $140 million. For this team, even facing the prospect of part or all of another season without fans, that should be manageable. Now’s a good time to remind everyone of the Phillies’ TV contract.

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So buying another reliever off the market, especially a devalued one, shouldn’t be beyond them and Dombrowski. Brad Hand passed through waivers owed only $10 million, which isn’t a ton for a reliever that has had an ERA over 3.00 once in the past five seasons (and the FIP to match). With every team passing on him through waivers, they must feel that they can get him for just one or two years for less as a free agent. $7 million? Less? The addition of Hendriks and Hand for less than $20 million solves a lot of problems in 2021.

But teams that pour a lot of resources into the pen tend to get burned. It’s a bullpen, it’s unpredictable, and previously dominant relievers end up sitting on the mound, staring at the ground and sucking their thumb in July for no discernable reason. So let’s get a little creative.