In some ways, anything like this is folly when a team has already hired Dave Dombrowski as President of Baseball. The Phillies clearly aren’t going to wait around for Theo Epstein to finish his year with a Eurorail pass as he takes up poetry or dyes his hair purple or whatever means of self-discovery he has planned for his year off. The Phillies likely won’t embark on some multi-year reshaping either, based on Dombrowski’s history. Maybe Dombrowski wants to try something new, but considering what the Phillies have already invested and their lack of prospects, they’re not itching to take any steps backward either.
And nor should they. While spending three straight years in the absolute pit of the middle suggests an incurable inertia, you could also make the argument that it means they’re also not that far away. The more you go all out and still end up as far from the horizon as you were, the more it feels intractable. But the Phillies aren’t there yet.
So what faces Dombrowski and the Fightin’s? There are a couple of obvious problems. The glaring one, with the gas leak and flames shooting out of the doorway, is the bullpen. This pretty much tells you everything you need to know about 2020:
Over a full baseball season, that would be 37 losses. That’s NC-17. The pen wasn’t healthy, but even if it had been, it was filled with far too many relievers over 30 who, when they got really volatile, walked way too many hitters. Most of that unit has been culled, but at the moment this is who’s listed as the Philly pen on RosterResource from FanGraphs:
Hector Neris, Connor Brogdon, Ranger Suarez, David Hale, Victor Arano, Ian Hamilton, Johan Quezada, and Cole Irvin. That’s a whole lot of not much.
The Dombrowski method says throw $10-12 million a year at Liam Hendriks and call it a day. And the Phillies very well might, and should, do that. Yes, Hendriks is over 30 as well, and his past two years of dominance are largely based on a jump in velocity that won’t hold forever. Still, a three-year deal probably gets you at least two years of massive improvement at the sharp end of the pen.
That doesn’t mean the Phillies should stop there. They should have a ton of cash to spend, but might be pulling the same bullshit act that you see other big market teams not named the Dodgers are pulling after one season of losses. While they’ve denied that Zack Wheeler is on the block after that rumor spilled out of the generally waste-filled “Buster Olney Container,” the fact that it appeared at all is worrying for Phillies fans. Still, even with estimated arbitration costs, they’re on the hook for about $140 million. For this team, even facing the prospect of part or all of another season without fans, that should be manageable. Now’s a good time to remind everyone of the Phillies’ TV contract.
So buying another reliever off the market, especially a devalued one, shouldn’t be beyond them and Dombrowski. Brad Hand passed through waivers owed only $10 million, which isn’t a ton for a reliever that has had an ERA over 3.00 once in the past five seasons (and the FIP to match). With every team passing on him through waivers, they must feel that they can get him for just one or two years for less as a free agent. $7 million? Less? The addition of Hendriks and Hand for less than $20 million solves a lot of problems in 2021.
But teams that pour a lot of resources into the pen tend to get burned. It’s a bullpen, it’s unpredictable, and previously dominant relievers end up sitting on the mound, staring at the ground and sucking their thumb in July for no discernable reason. So let’s get a little creative.
Right now, both Vince Velasquez and Spencer Howard are listed as filling out the rotation behind Aaron Nola, Wheeler, and Zack Efflin. Velasquez has been booted from the rotation the past two years, and Howard hasn’t thrown more than 112 innings as a pro, and that was three years.
Perhaps Velasquez can save his career by being something of a multi-inning weapon, where his velocity might play up a bit and he can have just one secondary pitch, either his change or his curve. Velasquez hasn’t averaged five innings a start in years anyway, so are you losing that much if he throws 4.2 innings once a week or 2-3 innings twice a week? Velasquez’s outings from the pen the past two years aren’t encouraging, but it’s only 13 innings at the tail end of seasons when there was starter’s wear on his arm.
Howard’s future is clearly as a starter, but to expect him to manage more than 130-140 innings after throwing 70 in 2019 and 25 in 2020 is pure fantasy. As a starter, the Phillies would have to shut him down in August at best, or move him to the pen anyway. So why not try the same with him? Or line him up behind an opener and ask him to go through a lineup no more than twice, four to-five innings an outing. Get 100-110 dominant innings out of him.
Both Velasquez, despite a hiccup in walks last year, and Howard (at least his record in the minors) add strikeouts and better control to a pen that’s screaming for it, especially as bad of a defensive team as the Phillies are. Balls in play are not their friend, especially with free runners on the bases.
Even a representative pen, with that top three in the rotation (put me in the camp that the Efflin revival last year was real) and that lineup at least puts the Phillies in the conversation. It’s a rough division, where the Braves stand tall, the Marlins are rising, and the Mets could be really improved with a functioning front office and a returning Thor. But short of splashing on everyone above and adding George Springer to run shuttles between Andrew McCutcheon and Bryce Harper in the outfield and die of exhaustion by Labor Day, as well as trading for Javier Baez or Francisco Lindor to boost the infield with prospects the Phillies simply don’t have, it’s the quickest route out of the muck of .500.