After strong second halves of the 2017 season from Hector Neris, Luis Garcia, Edubray Ramos, Adam Morgan and Hoby Milner, Philadelphia Phillies general manager Matt Klentak signed free-agents Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter to lucrative free-agent contracts this past offseason. The Phillies were unsure exactly what type of production they would get from their starting rotation in 2018, but they were sure of one thing: the bullpen would be an area of strength.
Well, go figure, the opposite has transpired. While Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin have made the Phillies starting rotation one of the pleasant surprises of the 2018 season, the bullpen has struggled mightily.
Hoby Milner, who lefties hit just .159 against in 2017, was optioned to Triple-A on April 21. The team's other Opening Day lefty, Adam Morgan, has a 4.66 ERA, highlighted by a walk-off grand slam that he allowed in Chicago earlier this month. Hector Neris, after posting a 2.48 ERA in the second half of the 2018 season, joined Milner at Triple-A Lehigh Valley on Monday. After signing a lucrative two-year/$18 million free-agent contract in the offseason, Tommy Hunter has posted a 4.79 ERA in 25 games. His 2.28 FIP suggests he's been rather unlucky, but he failed to record a hold in Tuesday night's loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. The other offseason signee, Neshek, has yet to pitch in 2018. Garcia is currently on the disabled list with a wrist sprain. Ramos has been lights-out in 31 games, but even his 0.68 ERA hasn't been enough to overcome the struggles in the rest of the bullpen.
Manager Gabe Kapler has drawn criticism from some for not assigning specific roles to his relievers. Though he wasn't officially the closer, Neris served in that role early in the season. But since he lost Kapler's trust there hasn't been one specific pitcher used to ice games. Rookie phenom Seranthony Dominguez, who has a 1.61 ERA in 18 games, has sometimes been used in the ninth inning, but more often used in an Andrew Miller-esque role, one where he pitches in whatever the highest-leverage situation is. More traditional observers have chastised Kapler for not naming Dominguez the closer.
General manager Matt Klentak responded to criticism that Kapler has received for picking relievers based on what he views as favorable matchups, rather than what inning it is.
"If we had Brad Lidge on this team, he would close," Klentak told the collective media Tuesday, including MLB.com's Todd Zolecki. "If we had Billy Wagner on this team, he would close. If we had Jonathan Papelbon on this team, he would close. We don't have one of those guys. So we're making due with what we have, which is a pretty good group.
To be clear, the Phillies do seem to have a pitcher capable of pitching in the ninth inning consistently in Dominguez. Lidge, Wagner and Papelbon were each among the most dominant closers of their eras, but Dominguez has shown in a short time period that his pitching arsenal gives him that type of upside. Of course, as SportsRadio 94 WIP's Jack Fritz wrote last month, his ability to pitch multiple innings also leads you to think it may not make sense to put him in the box of always pitching in the ninth inning.
For example, when Vince Velasquez got himself into trouble in the seventh inning Tuesday, Kapler called upon Hunter in what proved to be the highest-leverage situation. Hunter wasn't able to strand two inherited runners, ultimately coughing up four runs (two of which were charged to Velasquez and two of which were charged to him) and the Phillies lead.
Forget for a moment that the Phillies tied the game on a two-run double by Rhys Hoskins in the bottom of the eighth and Dominguez ultimately surrendered the winning run in the ninth. Had the Phillies remained two runs behind after Hunter exited the game, Dominguez would not have pitched yet and there wouldn't have been a save or tie-game situation. Even as it was, the Phillies were in position to win the game in the top of the seventh and didn't use their best reliever in what proved to be the evening's most crucial inning.
In an ideal world, the Phillies would have more set roles around Dominguez. Part of what allowed the aforementioned Miller to be so effective during the Cleveland Indians 2016 playoff run was that even after Terry Francona used his best reliever, he had a reliable closer in Cody Allen that he could turn to when it came time for a save. Brad Lidge was able to pitch exclusively in the ninth in 2008 because Ryan Madon and J.C. Romero were part of an elite bullpen (a bridge, if you will) that got the ball to him in the ninth.
Whether he was officially named the closer or not, Neris was used in that type of role early in the season. If he had seized the role, he would be the team's closer now, even if Kapler didn't come out an announce it. The fact is, neither he nor anyone else has seized that role. Without Hunter performing up to expectations or Neshek, even getting the ball to the ninth has been a task. So the Phillies have employed Dominguez all throughout the later innings. He's largely done his job, the Phillies have just struggled to get outs from the bullpen around him.