Phillies Shaping Up to Have Spring Training Closer Battle

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Oct 2, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Hector Neris (50) reacts after a victory against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park. The Philadelphia Phillies won 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 2, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Hector Neris (50) reacts after a victory against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park. The Philadelphia Phillies won 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /
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With a bullpen that saw some major overhaul this offseason, the Phillies are poised to have an open battle for the closing job in spring training.

It’s safe to say that the Phillies bullpen was below-par last season, especially in the final month of the year. On the year as a whole, their relievers finished 28th in ERA (5.05), 29th in FIP (4.57), and 27th in fWAR (0.4). In September they were especially bad, finishing dead last in both ERA (7.88) and fWAR (-1.1).

Thankfully, general manager Matt Klentak went out and acquired two sold veteran relievers in Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit. Each of them should better a bullpen that, while paltry overall, saw the emergence of two notable bullpen arms in Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos. Toss in last year’s closer in Jeanmar Gomez and the young but intriguing lefty Joely Rodriguez, and the Phillies bullpen should look much better in 2017.

That brings us to one of the question marks as we look towards the 2017 season: who will be closing games for the Phils next year?

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The Phillies had this same conundrum heading into the 2016 season. David Hernandez appeared to be the frontrunner with other former closers Andrew Bailey, Ernesto Frieri, and Edward Mujica also in the mix. None of them panned out and the bullpen was a complete mess in the first week of the season until Gomez emerged as the unlikely savior of the bullpen.

This spring there will be far better candidates for the closing role.

Benoit and Gomez both have experience as closers. Gomez went 37-of-43 in save opportunities for the Phils last year, but he fell apart with the rest of the bullpen in September as he pitched a career-high 70 games. Benoit served as Detroit’s closer in 2013, converting 24 of 26 save opportunities. He has been a setup man for most of his career.

While Gomez and Beniot have the experience, neither had a season like Neris did last year. In his first full major-league season, he struck out 11.43 batters per nine innings as he posted a 1.11 WHIP. Neris finished the year with a 2.58 ERA, 3.30 FIP, and two Baseball Reference wins above replacement. He was the fifth-most valuable Phillie by rWAR.

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Ramos may also be a dark horse candidate for the bullpen role. He posted a 3.83 ERA and 3.60 FIP in 40 major-league innings last season. He throws a fastball that averaged nearly 96 mph and topped out above 98.5 mph in 2016. Ramos mixes that heater with an above-average slider and solid command overall. However, Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly notes that Ramos’s “time might come further down the road when he’s gained more experience.”

At the winter meetings, Klentak did say the team will likely go into spring training with a closing competition.

He told reporters Tuesday, “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.”

Considering the start of spring training is still three months away and the start of the season is even further off, the team still has plenty of time to sort the situation out. Manager team Pete Mackanin said at the meetings: [quote via Ryan Lawrence of Philly Voice]

"“We don’t have a premier closer, which we would love to have, but last year we didn’t either. 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.”"

Next: Phillies Add Minor League SS in Rule 5 Draft

As Mackanin and Klentak said, the Phillies have far better relievers for next season compared to the garbage fire that was the 2016 bullpen. Several different players could wind up closing games, or one could hold down the role for the whole season. That will be determined by how the players perform and, ultimately, whatever Mackanin decides.

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