Phillies still need more in bullpen as free-agent relief market begins to dry up


Offseason roster-building tends to slow down around the holidays before picking back up shortly after the new year, and if the Phillies are done making big-league moves in 2022, they'll still have an important spot to fill in the bullpen when the calendar flips.

They've added a superstar shortstop in Trea Turner, a mid-rotation starter in Taijuan Walker and a left-handed reliever in Matt Strahm but the Phils still need some more at the back end of their bullpen as most options have come off the board.

The market for setup men is drying up. Mychal Givens signed with the Orioles, David Robertson and Adam Ottavino with the Mets, Chris Martin with the Red Sox, Brad Boxberger with the Cubs, Seth Lugo with the Padres, Trevor May with the Athletics, Tommy Kahnle with the Yankees. If you sort the relievers who entered free agency by their 2022 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), 10 of the top 21 and 14 of the top 28 have signed.

The biggest names still available in the free-agent relief market are Craig Kimbrel, Taylor Rogers, Andrew Chafin, Michael Fulmer, Chad Green, Jose Alvarez, Corey Knebel, Luke Jackson, Wily Peralta, Hunter Strickland, Craig Stammen, Aroldis Chapman, Will Smith, Brad Hand, Alex Colome, Ken Giles and Darren O'Day.

It may seem like there's a lot to choose from in that group but it's not easy to pick the right one when you're dealing with formerly dominant closers on the way down, setup men who may have aged out of their effective years or pitchers looking to rebound from injury. The Phillies spent $22 million last season on Knebel, Hand and Jeurys Familia. They got a half-season from Knebel, released Familia in August and couldn't trust Hand by September.

Rogers and Chafin, both 32-year-old lefties, stick out as the best bets for reliability from the group above over the next one or two seasons. Rogers opened 2022 with two strong months as San Diego's closer before struggling badly, losing his job and eventually being traded to Milwaukee for Josh Hader. From 2017-21, he had a 2.95 ERA and 1.12 WHIP with 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings. He's a fastball-slider guy whose heater averaged 94.3 mph last season.

Chafin has a 3.23 ERA in nine big-league seasons, appearing at least 64 times in six of them. He doesn't rely on velocity (91 mph average) or big strikeout totals but has done a good job throughout his career of limiting hard contact. He allowed career-low rates of line drives and hard contact in 2021 and then bested both rates in 2022.

A few relievers with lesser resumes than Rogers or Chafin have already signed multi-year deals worth at least $7.5 million annually, so the numbers will be higher than that. The Phillies signed Strahm for $15 million over two years. The Red Sox signed Martin for $17.5 million over two years. Rogers and Chafin have been better than both.

When the offseason began, MLBTradeRumors projected Rogers to sign a three-year, $30 million contract and Chafin to sign for two years, $18 million. Both look realistic, though Chafin could beat the projection.

The other top remaining free-agent relievers listed above are more so one-year targets. Kimbrel is the biggest name but would be a risk because he's essentially alternated between up and down years the last four. You don't know whether you're getting the dominant, low-2.00s ERA Kimbrel who can keep the ball in the yard and throw enough strikes to be considered effectively wild, or the one who doesn't know where the ball is going from pitch to pitch and visibily loses confidence within an inning. He took a step back last season with the Dodgers and lost his closer's job late in the year. Aroldis Chapman lost his role in New York earlier in the season as he also struggled to throw strikes. 

Assuming health, there are five locks for the Phillies' bullpen in Seranthony Dominguez, Jose Alvarado, Strahm, Connor Brogdon and Andrew Bellatti. Sam Coonrod would appear to have a good shot, as well. The Phillies like right-handed relief prospects Andrew Baker and Francisco Morales, each of whom will pitch at age 23 in 2023.

There's talent there, there's some versatility in repertoire, but it's a bullpen that still looks and feels one reliable arm short, especially when factoring in the frequency of injury or the general volatility of relievers from year to year. 

The Phillies could also find relief help via trade and that avenue won't dry up as much as the free-agent market. Meaningful trades are still made well into spring training and teams can still uncover relievers of value in March as other clubs' rosters come more into focus.

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