Gomez’s Struggles Hide Bullpen Rebuild Success
Two years in a row the Phillies have started the year in Cincinnati, and two years in a row they have left with bullpen questions. In 2016, the team shifted from David Hernandez to Dalier Hinojosa to Jeanmar Gomez as closer by April 9. This year, the Phillies are considering moving Jeanmar Gomez out of the closer’s role, but the similarities end there between the two teams. The difference is that the 2016 Phillies were throwing a bunch of things at the wall and hoping for something to work out, and the 2017 Phillies will be moving one of their shutdown setup men to work the final inning of the game.
This offseason, Matt Klentak made it a goal to upgrade the Phillies bullpen. The Phillies projected to return Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris, Edubray Ramos, and Joely Rodriguez from a bullpen that was one of the worst in baseball last year, leaving three open spots. To accomplish that goal, he acquired Pat Neshek for nothing and gave Joaquin Benoit a 1 year contract. The results have been immediate. So far this season, Benoit and Neshek have combined with Neris and Ramos to give the Phillies a great group of middle relief. So far the quartet has pitched 12.2 innings, allowed 0 runs, 8 hits, 4 walks, and struck out 14. Meanwhile Rodriguez, Adam Morgan, and Gomez have given up 11 runs in 7.2 innings.
Adam Morgan is clearly the long reliever for Pete Mackanin in the mop up role that Brett Oberholtzer occupied last year. Joely Rodriguez is going to see work against lefties, and his struggles are the most concerning non-Gomez pitching development. However, neither of them is slated for high leverage innings, and so while their struggles are unpleasant, they are not damning.
With Sunday’s blowup, Jeanmar Gomez has cost the Phillies one game and has nearly cost them a second. That is not going to cut it, even for a team lacking in playoff aspirations. This means the question really is “Who will replace Gomez?”, and not “Can the Phillies replace Gomez?”. The Phillies have four candidates to replace Gomez, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. So far the Phillies have been using Joaquin Benoit as their stopper, with him coming into a high leverage situation on opening day, as well as in the 6th in their most recent win to face Strasburg and then 1-2-3 in the order (he also got work in the 7th inning of Friday’s game). Ramos and Neshek have yet to get much leverage work (Ramos did pitch the 7th on opening day and Neshek got some outs in the 7th on Sunday), so it is hard to see what their defined roles are other than Ramos’ ability to go multiple innings. That leaves Neris, who got 4 outs on Sunday and pitched the 8th on opening day and on Friday. Neris clearly has Mackanin’s trust, and he also has the ability to 4+ innings, closing out a problem and then getting more work the following inning.
The answer of who will close clearly comes down to Neris and Benoit, but before looking at how the new structure allows for that choice to go either way, it is important to factor a demoted Gomez back into the mix. Gomez at his best is a former starter capable of going multiple innings with a good ground ball rate. That is essentially what he did in 2015, when his season stats were better than they were in 2016 (though his disastrous September sways that some). That would slot him into a role currently being occupied by a mix of Benoit, Neshek, and Ramos. Is Gomez a downgrade from those guys? Maybe, but not noticeably so from Neshek or the current iteration of Ramos (Ramos should improve as he continues to log MLB innings). This brings us back to Benoit vs Neris and how the added bullpen depth makes this transition easier.
If we assume that Benoit and Neris are negligibly different at getting batters out (which may or may not be true, but is reasonably close given our current knowledge), then the difference is that Neris can get more than 3 outs and Benoit is probably more limited to a 1 inning role. This means if Neris is your closer, his extra work is coming in the 8th inning, which theoretically is Benoit’s inning, which means you are planning on having a safety valve for Benoit. The opposite arrangement has Benoit in the 9th and Neris in the 8th, meaning that like today, the extra outs if you need them would come in the 7th, protecting Neshek, Ramos, and Gomez. If those players do their job, then you can limit Neris’ innings. If you start to sense trouble, then you have the ability to go to your best pitcher. The added bonus is that the Phillies’ bench is constructed in a way that makes moves like double switches palatable, as Mackanin can play the platoon advantages.
When this move happened in 2016, it left Neris and Gomez alone as the only viable pitchers in the bullpen, now this move sees the Phillies with existing arms that can help cover the leverage opportunities created by this shift in structure. This does mean that the Phillies are going to need pitchers like Edubray Ramos to get important outs early in the game, but this also frees the Phillies up to do more with their bullpen, like using Gomez as a long man and exchanging Morgan for a more situational arm. But that is just speculation for now, because with the improvements made this offseason, this is a reshuffling of responsibilities, not a gaping hole.