With the Rotation Doing Fine, The Phillies Need To Reevaluate Their Bullpen
The Phillies starting rotation has not been dominant this season on a whole. They have had a few dominant starts, like Jake Arrieta last night, but they haven’t been truly lights out, especially when you account for their level of competition. Their starters have the 5th best ERA in baseball at 3.14, but once again they have yet to really face an offensive power house. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez have been very good and Jake Arrieta seems to have finally finished with the warmup portion of his year. Aaron Nola is still not missing bats at a high rate, but he has a dominant start under his belt and a 2.22 ERA. If all of that holds, the Phillies have an above average rotation with some upside for a bit more. Early in the offseason the Phillies built a bullpen to withstand a bad rotation. At the time they didn’t have Jake Arrieta and Velasquez and Pivetta were huge question marks, as was the now injured Jerad Eickhoff. They expected to manage short outings from their rotation, signing Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter to bolster 7th and 8th innings, and building a team to handle a 8 man bullpen.
Then the Phillies signed Arrieta, Neshek and Hunter got hurt, and then all the question marks stopped being question marks. The Phillies rotation has been routinely pitching 5+ innings and mostly been at 6+ outside of Ben Lively. Outside of a couple of games that means the Phillies bullpen has been relatively untaxed, having pitched only 62.1 innings so far (20th in baseball). Additionally, the two relievers called up for Neshek and Hunter, Victor Arano and Yacksel Rios have been good*, with Arano setting the major league record for perfect innings to start a season. The Phillies are still running a 8 man bullpen however, with long man Drew Hutchison appearing in only 5 games for 5.2 innings. Tommy Hunter is nearing a return, and the Phillies now both have questions about making room for him and how they want their team to be.
The easy change is to wait for Hunter to be back and send down Yacksel Rios, who could use some more polishing in AAA. That doesn’t deal with two problems with the bullpen right now. The Phillies are essentially wasting two roster spots on Drew Hutchison and Hoby Milner. Hutchison has been bad this year, but he also has gotten very little work. The idea of the long man existed for the Phillies for a couple of reasons. The first is it is trendy, especially if you have a failed starter who can give you multiple high quality innings. The second is that Mark Leiter Jr. flashed the ability to be like 80% of the trendy version of this role and that is totally serviceable. The final is that Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Ben Lively all represented risks to be out by the 3rd inning (see Velasquez’s first start of the year), and having an arm to get you 3+ innings in an emergency was important. Hutchison is not Leiter so there is no incentive to use him in leverage situations and there has been no emergency uses outside of closing out the last innings of blowouts. In the case of Milner, he has been bad. Milner struggles to strike out batters and is a disaster vs right handed batters, but he generated enough weak contact vs lefties to be a LOOGY. Right now he has appeared in 10 of the Phillies 18 games and is averaging 1.8 outs per appearance and 2.5 batters faced. Of the 25 batters he has faced, 18 have been lefties, he has 2 walks and 2 strikeout sand they are hitting .267/.389/.467 off of him. That is much better than his line against righties, but it is not good. If Milner is not going to get lefties out and not give the bullpen innings, the Phillies would be better served pulling the plug in favor of even another RHP if they have to.
The Phillies don’t need to make a decision now, because there is nothing forcing them. They could go 5 man bench and have Roman Quinn given them more dynamism or Jesmuel Valentin give them more flexibility. They could even look at the free agent market for a designated pinch hitter to carry for a few weeks. At some point the left handed relief options in AAA like Austin Davis and Brandon Leibrandt are going to look more appealing than Milner. However, the Phillies may be able to solve their left handed problem by just avoiding it and just going with their best pitchers regardless of handedness. Even without dramatic change, we are starting to near the point where roster construction thoughts from the preseason need to be reevaluated based on the talent on the roster.