An early look at the ‘fierce' battle in Phillies' bullpen


As the Phillies begin exhibition play, competition for roster spots will come into focus.

And based on the carnage it caused last year — from missing the playoffs to front office upheaval — no battleground will be more important than the bullpen.

"I think it's going to be a pretty fierce competition for eight spots," manager Joe Girardi said. "Could it be nine? I guess it could be. But in my mind, it's eight."

New club president Dave Dombrowski, who didn't come on board until the second week of December, acted quickly in an effort to revamp the bullpen, which finished with an ERA of 7.06 in 2020, the highest in baseball since 1930.

Opposing hitters took a lot of comfortable swings and generated a lot of good contact against the bullpen last year, so Dombrowski put a premium on velocity in adding quality like free agent Archie Bradley and a whole lot of quantity, some of which must click if the Phils are going to have a chance in the rugged NL East.

"They're not lacking velocity, but it will come down to execution of pitches," Girardi said.

Girardi has warned players that early Grapefruit League games are for getting themselves ready to compete, that the real evaluation process won't start for a couple of more weeks, when players are closer to being completely game-ready.

But deep down inside, any player fighting for a job will want to impress from the get-go. So, the bullpen competition, and the battle for the starting center field job (Roman Quinn, Scott Kingery, Adam Haseley and Odubel Herrera are the primary candidates) could provide interesting drama even before Girardi and the staff shifts into full evaluation mode.

In the bullpen, barring injury, of course, it's clear that two spots are locked up.

Bradley is going to work at the back end of games and so is returning Hector Neris. Both have closed games, and though it has been widely assumed that Bradley will be the closer, Girardi is not ready to anoint anyone in that role.

"It's a little early for that," he said. "I want to see how guys perform and really get my eyes on guys. Obviously, there's competition for that (spot) but there's going to be a lot of important innings down in the bullpen and we need everyone to pitch extremely well. 

"I would really like to define some roles if I can, and if I can't, we'll adjust to it. But I would like to define some roles and we'll let that play out in spring training and see how people are doing.

"Archie has made it known from Day 1 that he doesn't care — he'll pitch wherever. That's nice for a manager and an organization to hear because it allows you to be a little more creative if you want to, but he's definitely in the mix" for the closer role.

Before Girardi can identify roles, he must simply figure out who is going to be in the bullpen.

After Bradley and Neris, there are a slew of arms, some of which seem likely to win spots and others that could emerge depending on what happens in other corners of the pitching staff.

"There's a lot of veterans here that have had a lot of success and there's some young kids that have had a little bit of success," Girardi said. "There's going to be some starters that could possibly end up not being the fourth and fifth starter that could end up moving to the bullpen, so until we have a better understanding of the makeup of the bullpen it's kind of hard to project."

After Bradley and Neris, the next two relievers most likely to make the club are Jose Alvarado and Connor Brogdon.

Alvarado is a hard-throwing lefty who was acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay. He's had success. He has some closer experience. But he's battled injuries and control issues the last two seasons. As long as Alvarado is healthy, it's hard to imagine him not being in the season-opening bullpen, though he does have a minor-league option.

Brogdon, 26, is a strong bet to land a spot based on work last September when he delivered 8⅔ scoreless innings over six appearances. He allowed just one hit over that span, struck out 14 and walked two.

With his power fastball/changeup/slider mix, Brogdon could be an interesting consideration to close down the road.

"I'm not putting that type of pressure on Connor right now, but I think he has the ability to be a closer one day," Girardi said. "Right now, I just want him to get into that groove he was in at the end of last year and we'll find places for him to pitch in the back end."

After the top four spots in the 'pen, the puzzle gets interesting with just four spots remaining. Or is it five?

Hector Rondon, Brandon Kintzler and Tony Watson are three veterans in camp on minor-league deals. All have successful track records in the majors. Rondon and Kintzler, both right-handers, have had success as closers, and Watson, a lefty, has spent some time in that role, as well. It's not difficult to envision all three winning spots, though it would require some 40-man roster maneuvering. Rondon, Kintzler and Watson can all opt out of their deals in the final week of camp if they choose.

Sam Coonrod's status is interesting. He was one of Dombrowski's power-arm acquisitions. If he can conquer command issues, he could win a spot. If he can't, he has minor-league options. 

Speaking of power arms and command issues, fifth starter candidate Vince Velasquez could end up in the bullpen. He also could be a trade candidate. Spencer Howard could end up being stashed in the bullpen where he could conceivably pick up innings behind a starter like Chase Anderson, who has averaged under 5⅓ innings per start since 2016. Or maybe the long man is Hale.

Lefties JoJo Romero and Ranger Suarez will both be in the mix. Romero showed some flashes last season and Suarez the year before. Both pitchers have minor-league options, which could work against them if the Phils want to preserve the veteran depth they've brought in.

It's going to be very interesting to see how Dombrowski, Girardi et al fit the puzzle together. There are a lot of pieces in the box and now it's time to dump them on the kitchen table and construct something.

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