Major league relievers are a notoriously inconsistent bunch, as anyone watching the Phillies bullpen is aware. That’s what made Mariano Rivera great – he never had two seasons as dominant as Koji Uehara is in the middle of having (0.93 ERA, 143 K and only 13 BB in his last 106 IP), but he was a lights out closer for every single one of 18 years as a reliever. While he’s currently the best closer in baseball, Koji hasn’t had that level of consistency.
The Phillies bullpen this season has suffered from extreme forms of this inconsistency – they’ve at times been average, at times been the worst relief core in baseball, and at times like the last couple weeks, the best in the league.
Yes, over the last two weeks, Phillies relievers have had the lowest ERA (1.39), FIP (1.98), and xFIP (2.38) in baseball, pairing it with the fewest walks allowed (1.11 BB/9) and 2nd-most strikeouts (11.13 K/9; the leader? the Marlins, at 11.15 K/9).
Headlined by recent strong work from Justin De Fratus, Antonio Bastardo, Jonathan Papelbon, and the surprising Mario Hollands, positive signs for the future (at least from the reliever side of things) are taking shape in Philadelphia.
These recent results have their warts and are not going to perpetuate indefinitely, given the team’s 26th-ranked groundball rate, and lower than average HR/FB rate (there’s a bit of luck involved), but this is as good a time as any to discuss the positive potential of the bullpen moving forward.
By August 1st of this season, we could live in a world where the three top relievers on the pre-season depth chart – Jonathan Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo, and Mike Adams – have each played their last game as a Phillie.
Adams, an obvious trade candidate given his expiring contract and strong performance, is again on the DL with shoulder-related soreness. In a best case scenario, he returns mid-July, although with a dent in his trade value.
Bastardo is a similarly expiring contract, and is currently working on an 8.0 inning scoreless streak, with an ERA below 3.00 for the second straight season. He has trade value.
Papelbon, despite the velocity drop and ruckus surrounding his contract, has performed as well as anyone could ask during his time with the Phillies. Assuming the team is willing to eat part of the remaining contract, a team like the Detroit Tigers would certainly have interest in a top flight closer.
All three being moved at the trade deadline is actually a great option for the long-term health of the bullpen. Aside from whatever return value is netted in the form of minor leaguers, it removes the three highest paid relievers on the team. What it sacrifices in track record, it replaces with youth, raw velocity, and financial flexibility.
Currently in the bullpen are three cost-controlled options that hit at least 98 mph, in Ken Giles, Jake Diekman, and Ethan Martin. All three have elite, late-inning ceilings, and comprise a strong core moving forward.
Sitting in Double-A is Nefi Ogando, traded to the Phillies by the Red Sox for John McDonald late last season (an amazing deal for the team). He’s also reported to hit 99 mph, and regularly sitting in the high 90′s.
He’s still a way’s away, given his control issues. His situation is similar to Ken Giles last season – he’s having a hard time getting people out despite his velocity, because he isn’t throwing strikes.
Additionally, the Phillies’ draft is full of pitchers who could be bullpen contributors in the near future. Of particular interest is RHP Chris Oliver, the 4th-round pick from Arkansas. He hits 97 on his fastball, and with two developed pitches, could fast track as a high-leverage reliever (the Phillies seem content to develop him as a starter, understandably).
Additionally, Justin De Fratus and Mario Hollands are each currently in the middle of 12+ inning scoreless streaks. With ERA-FIP differences of -1.44 and -1.10, respectively, they’re outperforming their peripherals and are pitching a bit over their heads.
They’re demonstrating themselves to be competent middle-relievers, even if a little larger sample size out of Mario Hollands would be nice.
The financial flexibility afforded by relying on young relievers is significant in this case. This season, Papelbon, Adams, and Bastardo are making a combined $22 million. Diekman, Hollands, De Fratus, Martin, Giles, and two internal options would cost under $4 million next season.
In the off-season, I’d be surprised if Ruben Amaro didn’t pursue at least one veteran reliever, but the money still saved would still be significant and better spent on other areas of the team.
Given the inconsistency and increasing replaceability of high-velocity young relievers, it’s a good strategy to keep a cheap stable of relievers, and allocate that money towards the rotation.
With question marks abounding in larger impact areas of the roster, it’s good to know there’s an area that’s not a tire fire, with a sustainable strategy moving forward.