The Philadelphia Phillies are dangerously close to finding themselves left out in the cold this offseason in terms of inking a top free agent relief pitcher.
First, it was fireballer Jordan Hicks coming off the board on Thursday, signing a four-year, $44 million deal to be a starter in San Fransisco. That was followed by Josh Hader, the cream of the crop, agreeing to a five-year, $95 million contract with the Houston Astros on Friday.
The Hader news was followed mere hours later by the news that Robert Stephenson has decided to join the Los Angeles Angels on a three-year, $33 million deal. Why was Stephenson's reported signing so disappointing for Phillies fans? The talented right-hander was one of the few players, let alone relievers, who the team had been officially known to have had interest in this offseason.
On Thursday, one day before the Hader and Stephenson signings, MLB Network's Jon Morosi confirmed that the Phillies were among the teams showing interest in Stephenson. Aside from the well-covered and surprising Yoshinobu Yamamoto sweepstakes, there hasn't been much actual confirmed news out of the Phillies camp about their movements this winter.
In Stephenson, the Phillies had an opportunity to bring in one of the best relief arms in the game last season. For $11 million per year, he would have been the highest-paid player in the Phillies bullpen. As it stands, José Alvarado currently ranks at the top with a $9.02 million salary in 2024.
But it potentially would have been worth shelling out the money for a few seasons of the team's contention window if the front office was serious about adding another late-inning weapon to the relief corps.
Stephenson put it all together in Tampa Bay last year
Stephenson, a former first-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds, has the talent and pedigree. But after beginning his career with seven seasons of pitching in two of the most hitter-friendly environments in Cincinnati and Colorado, he entered the 2023 season with a 4.90 ERA and 1.41 WHIP.
But a June move from Pittsburgh to Tampa Bay changed the right-hander's fortunes. The Rays, known for bringing out the best in pitchers, turned Stephenson into an unhittable machine.
Over the final four months of last season, the 30-year-old threw 38 1/3 innings for Tampa with a 2.35 ERA and 0.68 WHIP. He posted a career-high 14.09 K/9 and 42.9 percent strikeout rate and had a career-best 1.88 BB/9. It's not like he just got lucky, either. His opponent's .136 average and .194 BABIP are backed up by a 2.26 xFIP and 1.78 SIERA. Stephenson may have been the best reliever in baseball for four months last year.
Phillies still have options, but the top tier is gone
Not to say that there still aren't some arms available. Plenty of free agents are still looking for work for the upcoming season, but we may have just seen the top-tier of relievers go off the board in a matter of days last week.
With names like Aroldis Chapman, Hector Neris, Matt Moore, and Wandy Peralta still available, the Phillies might still add an arm. But those four are all 35-plus, so it wouldn't be a sustainable approach. Only one of the top 10 remaining relievers on the board based on 2023 WAR, per MLB.com, is under 35.
So now, Stephenson will likely end up as the Angels leader in saves in 2024, and while the Phillies may be able to add more depth to the bullpen, they've missed out on the best high-leverage, late-inning relief options.