The Phillies are gearing up for Opening Day, and the roster is beginning to take shape. The bullpen, which was a point of emphasis for the front office, has looked much improved this spring.
Newcomers like Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, and Brandon Kintzler will look to solidify a bullpen that finished dead last in ERA last season. They will pair with holdovers like Hector Neris, Connor Brogdon, and Jojo Romero to form the foundation of the 2021 bullpen. If the Phillies expect to compete in the NL East, they will need improvement from the group.
Even with all the moves the Phillies made, they did not bring in a true closer this offseason. They brought in people with 9th inning experience, which will definitely help with the overall performance. However, none of the pitchers are the type that could claim the closer role once signed. Joe Girardi has made it clear that he would like to name a closer prior to the season.
So, who’s going to close for the 2021 Phillies? I think a lot of it depends on the makeup of the bullpen.
Much of the talk this spring has been about the two likely candidates: Neris and Bradley. A lot of fans will cringe at Neris’ name being involved once again in this competition. Coming off a season with a 4.57 ERA in 21.2 innings, Neris is certainly a lightning rod for the fanbase. However, this spring he has been throwing his slider with more frequency than past years.
While he has always had the slider in his arsenal, Neris stopped throwing it to focus heavily on his splitter. A fastball/splitter pitcher is not suited for long-term success due to the volatility of splitters. As seen by Neris, a splitter is a very cyclical pitch: unhittable for two to three weeks, followed by a period where it looks like a balloon to hitters.
Bringing back the slider will only help keep the hitters off balance, which will allow him to throw his splitter less. For his career, he’s thrown his splitter 50.8% of the time as a big leaguer. A pitcher that relies that heavily on a volatile pitch is due to have both cold and hot streaks. Maybe the slider can help him navigate through the cold streaks better.
Bradley has done a little of everything as a big leaguer. While he started his career as a starter for the Diamondbacks, Bradley has done it all. He has started, pitched in middle relief, been a late inning setup guy, and closed.
In my opinion, Bradley is probably best suited for the late inning setup guy role. In an ideal world, Bradley is coming in the seventh or eighth inning, acting as a bridge to the closer. If the Phillies end up carrying two lefties in the bullpen, I think it is very likely that Bradley is the one taking the ninth inning.
I said the closer role would depend on the makeup of the bullpen. Two lefties and either one of the two aforementioned guys could be pitching in the ninth.
However, it is looking increasingly possible that the Phillies will carry not two, but three lefties on the roster. If the team does decide to go with three lefties, then there is a new favorite for the job. Three southpaws frees up Jose Alvarado to pitch the ninth, and he could be the favorite for the job in that case.
Alvarado has been absolutely electric in Spring Training. While it’s almost a certainty he has no idea where his pitches are going, pitchers that throw 101 mph with hair don’t come around everyday. Out of the three pitchers discussed, Alvarado produces the most uncomfortable at-bats.
A bullpen that is only carrying two lefties puts Alvarado in more of a matchup role. There is three batter minimum role, but it would still be hard to name him the closer if you only have one other lefty. If both Jojo Romero and Tony Watson break with the team from Spring Training, Alvarado instantly becomes the best option for the ninth inning.
We will find out a lot about the makeup of this bullpen in the coming week, but there are plenty of options for the team to install as the closer. As Jim Salisbury reported this weekend, many of the veteran NRIs have opt-outs this week that will force the Phillies to make some decisions.
It will be interesting to see how the bullpen shapes up this coming season, but one thing is for sure. The bullpen will be better this season than last.
You can bet on that.