The Philadelphia Phillies, like most teams, started their due diligence at the GM Meetings, kicking the tires on the top free agents on the market this offseason. When you think of relief pitchers, the first name that pops into your head is Josh Hader, former closer of the San Diego Padres.
Even though Jon Morosi of MLB Network thinks that the Phillies are a strong candidate to sign the best reliever in the current free agent class, there are plenty of routes the Phillies could take to shore up the bullpen for another run at the World Series in 2024.
One option is to look past the most popular names and avoid the bidding wars that will inevitably happen around the top-tier pitchers. Who could the Phillies possibly ink to a deal this winter if they decide not to go after the Haders of the world?
A name that jumps out as one of the more underrated relief arms in the free agent class, and could still provide the Phillies with reliable bullpen depth, is Reynaldo López.
López well-traveled, but not as well-known in 2023
You're forgiven if you're unfamiliar with the right-hander. You may have heard his name bandied about this past season, seeing as how he played on three different teams. The 29-year-old split his eighth MLB season between the Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Angels, and Cleveland Guardians.
López finished his nomadic year with a 3-7 record, 3.27 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and an 11.3 K/9 in 68 appearances. He recorded six saves and 22 holds.
So how is a reliever, with six saves to his name over 241 career games, going to help the bullpen?
The Athletic's Eno Sarris, the creator of the Stuff+ pitching metric, recently pegged Lopez as one of the most underrated free agents (subscription required), based on the eight-year veteran's pitch characteristics. He describes all three of López's pitches as standout offerings based on their shape and velocity.
But how does López stack up against the other free agent relievers? He's among the best in the business, according to Sarris: "So when you look at qualified relievers last year by that statistic [Stuff+], and see that the only free agents in the top 20 are Jake Diekman, Aroldis Chapman, Jordan Hicks and López, that stands out a little."
The proof is in the pudding. His 11.3 K/9 in 2023? That's 83 strikeouts in 66 innings.
López would fit like a glove in the Philadelphia bullpen
There's no denying that López would fit right in amongst the Phillies high-velo relief corps. In just two seasons, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has built his vision of a hard-throwing bullpen, as highlighted by Matt Gelb of The Athletic (subscription required) during the playoffs.
Statcast data from 2023 ranks the Phillies bullpen with the seventh-highest average fastball velocity in the majors at 95 mph, but their sinkers ranked first at 97 mph and their cutters fourth at 91.4 mph.
Lopez's four-seam fastball, which he throws 64.3 percent of the time, has ticked up each of the last three seasons and sat at 98.2 mph this year, ranking in the 96th percentile. For comparison, José Alvarado's fastball ran at 98.7 mph.
Despite the fastball velocity, he uses his other pitches to put batters away most of the time. His slider carried a 36.5 percent strikeout rate, while his changeup sat at 35.7 percent. He generated only 26.4 percent of his strikeouts with his fastball.
No wonder the Dominican native had a 90th percentile 29.9 percent strikeout rate. It's almost like he was built to be a Philadelphia Phillies reliever.
Phillies' offseason bullpen plans may surprise
So why would Dombrowski and general manager Sam Fuld go after a reliever like López over an established closer still in his prime?
According to The Athletic's Jayson Stark (subscription required), the Phillies appear to be comfortable shopping below the top tier of relief arms and not anointing any reliever as the closer for 2024, which would turn Hader off signing in Philadelphia.
Per Stark, "... the Phillies seem ready to empower manager Rob Thomson to mix and match his way through the late innings again ... They’ll be shopping for live bullpen arms to add to that mix. But they haven’t shown interest so far in adding a traditional closer ..."
With that in mind, if the Phillies can acquire the services of a free agent like López, the closer-by-committee approach might just work in 2024.