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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.
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.