Phillies Bullpen Following Royals Blueprint


Looking at the prospective 2015 Phillies bullpen, it seems as though they are trying to build the same type of relief corps used so effectively last season by the Kansas City Royals.

In 2014, the Royals used a simple formula to get to the World Series: have your starting pitcher throw 5-6 innings well enough to get a lead, or at least to keep your team in the game, then turn the game over to a lockdown bullpen who can finish it off.

Having three pitchers available at the end of a game who ranked in the top 12 for fWAR among all relievers in baseball –  Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, and Greg Holland  – gave Royals manager Ned Yost a vital weapon with which to help make that magical run to Game 7.

Each of those hurlers used the same recipe for success: throw hard and limit the long ball. Joe Buck would frequently reference this point in each World Series telecast, and it made sense. The dominance that these three in particular were showing during the playoffs was absolutely worthy of such attention.

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With a trade of Jonathan Papelbon seemingly on life support, for the purposes of this piece we’re going to assume he will be back in Philadelphia this coming season. Papelbon, along with Ken Giles and Jake Diekman, make up what is arguably the strongest potential element of the 2015 roster.

Each of these Phils relievers shares some similarities with their Royals counterpart. The biggest similarity is the velocity that these players possess. Diekman and Giles each ranked among the top 20 hardest throwers in the big leagues in 2014. Who else joins them? Each of the three Royals relievers mentioned above.

For as long as he remains in Philly, Papelbon is the first option as closer. The vesting option in his contract, where he receives $13 million in 2016 if he finishes 45 games or more in 2015, makes it certain that he will at least be given that opportunity if he is still here, if just so that the Phillies can avoid a grievance filing.

“If the Phillies had simply made Ken Giles the closer last August and transitioned into rebuilding mode, would’ve bypassed a lot of cost.” ~ Buster Olney, ESPN

Some have suggested that the Phillies could have prevented this from happening by putting Giles in as the closer last season. Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) on January 23, 2015 stated “If the Phillies had simply made Ken Giles the closer last August and transitioned into rebuilding mode, would’ve bypassed a lot of cost.

While the concept of putting Giles in as closer before he was ready is silly on its face, as already stated, the MLBPA would have had a problem with the Phillies blatantly trying to bypass a vesting option.

So, Papelbon would play the role of Greg Holland – a closer who gets the job done more often than not. While they may go about getting the job done differently (Holland’s 2014 average FB: 95.7), both are very good at what they do.

Greg Holland

Has Papelbon gotten lucky? His xFIP in 2014 would seem to say so (3.50), but there can be no argument against the fact that he still gets outs when he needs them. Unless or until he actually falls off the cliff that he and his declining velocity seem to have crept up on, there’s little reason to keep him from a shot at continuing to be successful.

Ken Giles can be the Phillies’ version of Wade Davis, only better. They come from different pitching backgrounds. Davis came up with Tampa Bay as a starter, frequently ranking near the top of the Rays prospect lists. Giles has always been a reliever who rarely appeared near the top of prospect lists.

Their numbers last season seem to sparkle when gazed upon. Looking specifically at Giles, his numbers last season as a rookie were beyond great (12.6 K/9, 1.34 FIP). However, pro scouts for the opposition have now seen him, and they will begin having their hitters make adjustments. Armed with the 2nd hardest fastball in the game via Fangraphs, along with a slider that caused hitters to produce a .121 wOBA, Giles is definitely capable of making his own adjustments in return.

Diekman is in the same boat. He throws hard, strikes people out, and seems to be getting better with more work. Last season, he became only the third Phillies reliever, the first since Al Holland in 1983, to record 100 strikeouts in a season. Of the three 100-K Phils relievers (the other being Dick Selma in 1970), Diekman needed the fewest innings in which to record that nice round number, fanning 100 in 71 innings.

Diekman’s ERA was a bit high at 3.80, but he received little help from his defense (2.83 xFIP). Throw in the fact that he won’t go to arbitration until 2016, and that he probably won’t accumulate the one statistic which arbitrators love to see from relievers (saves), he should remain a tremendous asset while he continues to wear the red pinstripes.

Jake Diekman

(Photo Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports)

Judging from some of the other pieces which GM Ruben Amaro has acquired/inherited, there seems to be a refreshing organizational shift in the type of relievers the Phillies want in their pen. After Papelbon, Giles, and Diekman there appear to be a number of others with the potential to be plus relievers in the big league bullpen moving forward.

Justin De Fratus had a great season in 2014, seeing his H/9 fall from the previous year (8.7 in 2013 to 7.7 in ’14), while his K/9 rose (8.1 in ’13 to 8.4 last year). Rule 5 pickup Andy Oliver, though not blessed with the greatest control, still can touch 95 as lefty – always a good thing. Whatever your thoughts might be on Luis Garcia, the man can rush a fastball to the plate, averaging 95+ mph.

Other assets who have yet to throw a major league pitch are Elvis Araujo and Nefi Ogando. Araujo was signed to a major league contract this past November by the Phillies, a big deal considering he has yet to reach the AAA level. However, as mentioned here, he can hit in the mid-90s with his fastball, so Phillies scouts must have seen something they like. Ogando was recently added to the 40 man roster and also boasts mid-90’s heat. 

I haven’t even included names in this discussion who are more familiar, and also still have a chance to help, such as Phillippe Aumont, Ethan Martin, and Miguel Gonzalez, but you get the picture. It’s quite clear that hard-throwing relievers are becoming a primary focus of Phillies scouts, something this team has lacked in-depth for many years.

There is, of course, no guarantee that the Phillies will emulate the success of their Royals counterparts. It’s not even a guarantee that the 2015 Royals bullpen will be as good as last year’s version. What is apparent is that the Phillies seem to have a model that they are following.

While it is admittedly difficult to get excited about a bullpen, the fact that a plan is in place and seems to be having success may make some of the other front office moves more palatable. Hopefully, the offense can produce just enough to give this unit leads to work with. You never know – they could become a Royal pain to opposing batters.