A Too Early Look at the 25-Man Roster: Lefty Reliever Battle
With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Clearwater on February 13th–three short weeks from now–it is certainly early to look forward to which 25 players will emerge from Spring Training as members of the Phillies Opening Day roster. Last week, we looked at the locks to break camp with the Major League club. That brings us to this week and next where we’ll turn to potential roster battles in the final two weeks before pitchers and catchers report.
With Andrew Knapp “winning” the backup catcher job Monday, we’re down to the final four spots on our predicted Opening Day roster.
The Phillies have done a good job this offseason addressing one of the more glaring areas of need following 2016 in adding depth to their bullpen. With the trade for Pat Neshek, the free agent signing of Joaquin Benoit, and an expected full season of Edubray Ramos, pressure should be taken off the likes of Jeanmar Gomez and Hector Neris. The hope there is that a lessened workload will prevent the sort of late-season struggles the bullpen had last year.
One issue with that increased depth: None of those five core relievers is left handed. At the end of the day, a good reliever is better than a bad one regardless of handedness, but the Phillies, like any team in baseball, will look to carry at least one lefty in the bullpen to call on for at least one tough out against a left-handed hitter.
Like the backup catcher position that had a clear favorite in Andrew Knapp, there is a clear favorite for this job in Joely Rodriguez, who made his major league debut in September of 2016 and, in limited work, was successful with 2.79 ERA in 9.2 innings over 12 appearances. As with Knapp, he also has a structural advantage as the only left-handed reliever on the 40-man roster entering camp.
He is joined in this particular roster battle by two veteran lefty relievers on minor league contracts in Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett as well as Adam Morgan, a starting pitcher who could be forced into relief due to his place on the 40-man roster and organizational starting pitching depth.
Like Knapp in the backup catcher roster battle, Rodriguez and Morgan enter Spring Training with an inside track to make the major league team based on their place on the 40-man roster. With Luis Garcia as the only dispensable member of the 40-man, there just aren’t many opportunities to add non-roster invites to the major league team.
That alone makes Ramos and Burnett unlikely candidates to win a job with the Phillies, but there is a spot for someone–provided the Phillies are as low on Luis Garcia as they should be–if a non-roster candidate emerges as deserving of a roster spot. Therefore, Ramos and Burnett, who both have had solid careers as relievers, deserve some consideration here.
All four candidates appeared in the major leagues in 2016, so let’s start by looking at some of their numbers last season.
Obviously, we have some small samples here from Rodriguez and Burnett as well as a possibly misleading sample from Adam Morgan’s work primarily as a starting pitcher. Still, we can say some things.
Cesar Ramos had such a poor season with the Texas Rangers that they released him in August. He was scooped up by the Detroit Tigers but did not appear in a major league game with them. As he enters his age-33 season, that’s typically a bad omen for what is to come. You can see that his velocity has been in a free fall over the last three seasons.
When Ramos has been successful in his career, it has come on limiting hard contact. Simply put, those hitters teed off on him last year and the likely explanation is that an 89 mph fastball is a lot easier to hit than one at 92 mph. If his velocity doesn’t bounce back, he won’t receive serious consideration.
Prior to 2013, Sean Burnett was an effective reliever for the Washington Nationals for three and a half seasons. Including his brief stint with the Nationals in 2016, Burnett had a 2.82 ERA in over 207 inning in relief with Washington. He was a very effective left-handed reliever at his peak. However, since 2012, he has only thrown only 69.2 professional innings and only 16 of them in the major leagues due to two elbow injuries. Like Ramos, Burnett is also older as he enters his age-34 season. That’s an unlikely combination of rust and age to shake off, but Andrew Bailey did just that as recently as last season.
That brings us to the two lefties on the 40-man roster: Adam Morgan and Joely Rodriguez. Morgan saw limited work out of the bullpen in 2016, but Pete Mackanin has suggested that he will have a chance to make the team as a reliever out of Spring Training this season. We know who Morgan is at this point. After a shoulder injury in the minor leagues, his stuff isn’t what led to his consideration as one of the top pitchers in the organization. If his stuff plays up in the bullpen, he could be a reasonable option there, but nothing we have seen from Morgan’s major league career suggest that is particularly likely.
Rodriguez has the inside track to the job because a) he’s on the 40-man and b) he’s actually a relief pitcher. The only reason he did not appear in the lock section of this series is because of his lack of experience at the major league level. The possibility of a bad spring and early-season stint in the minors is too large to call him a true lock for the role.
He’s not a strikeout pitcher, so the idea that the Phillies will have a lefty like Antonio Bastardo or Jake Diekman in years past is just not realistic. But, he does have some velocity with a fastball that averaged 95 mph during his month in the major leagues. Unlike the other options here, Rodriguez generates a high rate of ground balls, not just in his brief work in the majors last year, but that has been his reputation throughout his career. Entering his age-25 season, he’s easily the youngest option on this list.
This is Rodriguez’s job to lose, but if he performs poorly in Spring Training, it could open the door for Adam Morgan or either Sean Burnett or Cesar Ramos if they impress.