By Ben Ballier, Sports Talk Philly Staff
The Phillies bullpen was a glaring weakness in 2020, a persisting weight that eventually sunk the team’s chances to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011. The Phillies head into 2021 with a nearly identical (if not improved) lineup after retaining J.T. Realmuto & Didi Gregorius, while adding Brad Miller and Matt Joyce as potential left-handed bench options. Centerfielder Odúbel Herrera could also provide quite a spark to the lineup should he make the roster.
Meanwhile, veteran starters Matt Moore and Chase Anderson headed the Phillies pursuit of starting pitching last offseason. Iván Nova was also signed for depth purposes. One would assume that the duo of Moore and Anderson will produce comparable numbers, at worst, to 2020’s primary back-end starters Jake Arrieta, Vince Velasquez, and Spencer Howard.
In addition, the Phillies front office bolstered that formerly putrid bullpen with trades and signings including Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Sam Coonrod, David Paulino, Tony Watson, Brandon Kintzler, Bryan Mitchell, and Héctor Rondón, among several others.
So why do most oddsmakers have the Phillies coming in 4th place in the division with over/unders hovering around 81 wins? Well, I am not entirely too sure, to be honest. But with confidence, I can say that many people are overlooking two impactful effects of the Phillies offseason moves…
The first being velocity.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the Phillies have manufactured power pitcher after power pitcher. Fans should be familiar with Velasquez by now. “Vinny Velo” obtained his nickname by slinging 95 mph fastballs ever since his Phillies debut in 2016. He was one of the hardest throwers, if not the hardest thrower on the team at the time.
Flashing forward to the present, he is no longer the top dog lighting up the radar gun. Enyel De Los Santos and J.D. Hammer are two Phillies prospects that have seen MLB action in the past, but both were sent back down to the minor leagues fairly quickly. Early in Spring Training, they have displayed significant velocity boosts. Both have increased their average velocity by about 3 miles per hour, hitting 96 and 97 mph respectively.
Moreover, Alvarado and Coonrod are known to throw heat-seeking missiles. They have both sat consistently in the upper 90’s early on. Alvarado even breached 100-mph in his Phillies debut! Prospects Connor Brogdon and JoJo Romero usually sit around 97-98 mph with their fastballs. Bradley has averaged 95 mph on his 4-seamer over the past two seasons.
Altogether, the Phillies now have a plethora of flamethrowers to stack at the back end of the bullpen. It has become a necessity for major league bullpens to have hard throwers, so the Phillies adding a few big arms plus being able to develop their own is unbelievably significant and exciting. That alone will make their bullpen more intimidating and more competitive in 2021.
The second aspect that many people have overlooked is the newfound pitching depth and the effect that it will have on the already-improved bullpen. Instead of breaking down the reliever additions/depth, I am going to unfold how the starting rotation battle will actually influence the bullpen.
There are four starters bidding for two spots in the starting rotation. Howard may start in the minors if he does not earn a spot in the rotation, but Velasquez could flip to the pen. Thus, another upgrade over last year’s bullpen. It is possible that 5 of the 8 relievers from 2020 have been replaced, and the survivors (Neris, Brogdon, and Romero) are all quality pitchers.
Injuries are unavoidable, especially following shortened workloads last season. Howard, Mitchell, Paulino, Rondón, Nova, Michael Ynoa, and Neftalí Feliz make for an elite insurance policy should the Phillies get hit with the injury bug. Also, pitching prospects Damon Jones, Adonis Medina, Kyle Dohy, and Christopher Sanchez are surely under consideration to be called up.
Ultimately, pitching depth and velocity are two characteristics that the organization definitively lacked last year. They did not sign any of the biggest free agent names, but they did sign and trade for quality major league flamethrowers, a large quantity of depth pieces, and they are finally getting the most out of their pitching prospects.
I suppose it is understandable for outsiders to be low on the Phillies. However, we have already begun to see the impact of the offseason transactions on this ballclub. I think it is safe to assume that the Phillies will be more than just an average team in the NL East.