There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the 2016 Phillies. Their defense is going to be better, their starting pitching is going to be better, they are are going to get a full year of Maikel Franco, and then there are the prospects on the way. The bullpen is going to be bad, likely really bad. Last year the Phillies had the 8th and 9th innings locked down with Giles and Papelbon, and before it got to them they had some live arms that could keep games competitive. Now the big two are gone, Diekman and his 100 mph fastball went with Hamels, and Justin De Fratus is looking to see if his arm is still attached this year in Seattle. The closer role this year is likely to go to a guy a year and a half removed from Tommy John surgery who put up a 4.28 ERA. As well know, bullpen fortunes can change quickly, so while this may be a hunk of junk to start the year as a bunch of journeymen scramble to reclaim pieces of their lost careers, help is on the way.
One of the advantages of building around pitching is that beyond building a cheap rotation, it builds a cheap bullpen through attrition. Some pitchers are not meant to be starters based on their arsenal, durability, or mindset. Others will fail to make the adjustments necessary to turn over a lineup multiple times and be better suited to facing everyone only once. Other pitchers are going to be locked out of rotation spots and will cede their starting duties to their better equipped brethren. No matter how it happens, the creation of starting pitching depth creates a waste byproduct, and that byproduct is relievers.
Since we started with talking 2016 bullpen, might as well continue and talk guys already in the bullpen who have a chance of reaching the majors in 2016. In my mind once a player reaches AA they are within striking distance of the majors if they perform, regardless of their past track record. The most notable name here is Jimmy Cordero, because apparently having the ability to throw 100+ every game excites people. Cordero of course is more than just numbers on a radar gun and all of the hype is justified, he should be up at some point. The other guy who will be in camp is Edubray Ramos. Ramos doesn’t have the electric fastball of Cordero, but he sits 94-97 with a wipeout breaking ball. He is more major league ready than Cordero and has the superior control at this point. He doesn’t have the lights out closer ceiling that Cordero does, but he should be a competent reliever for a good team. Another guy that should be on the AAA team this year is LHP Tom Windle. The move to the bullpen always felt inevitable for Windle, and the Phillies made that move this summer. At first it was only Windle’s stats that got better, but in Arizona Fall League his fastball velocity increased to 93-95 touching 96, to go with with his plus slider. The floor for Windle seems to be effective LOOGY, but if he can continue to refine his control he could be a 7th or 8th inning arm.
I mentioned the AA thing earlier, and that is because the Clearwater Threshers had a great bullpen to end the season. The best arm is easily Alexis Rivero. Rivero started the year as a non-descript reliever in the Lakewood bullpen and by the end of the year was sitting 94-97 with a wipeout slider and good control. After dominating hi-A he should have a prominent role in the Reading bullpen this year, and if he can repeat his 2015 success it will be hard to hold him back. This year the Phillies moved giant RHP Miguel Nunez to the bullpen. His fastball (90-94) is not overpowering, but his secondary pitches took a step forward this past year. His control got better in the bullpen and he did a great job in the second half keeping men off the bases. He is big enough that there may be more velocity has he settles into a permanent bullpen role, he is someone to watch for a middle relief role. Ulises Joaquin was the Threshers’ opening day closer, and don’t let his height (5’11”) fool you, he can bring it at 93-95. His secondary pitches are not great, and he is more control than command, but he is a live arm that could take a path similar to Hector Neris.
Not all relievers are in the bullpen yet. The Phillies’ starting pitching depth means that some 2015 starters are going to be plying their trade in shorter bursts this season. The player getting the most press for this is RHP Victor Arano, one of the two players the Phillies got for Roberto Hernandez. Arano might not get bumped from the rotation yet, because he is only 21 and has the potential for 3 above average to plus pitches. As a starter he sits 91-95 and his fastball is relatively straight. Arano like pitching in relief more, and it showed this winter when he demolished the Mexican Winter League 0.72 ERA over 25 IP with 3 BB (1 IBB) and 21 Ks. His fastball even reportedly ticked up to 94-97. The Phillies have every incentive to keep Arano in the rotation, but if that continues to fail, he could arrive quickly in the bullpen. Someone who shares that same path as Arano is Nick Pivetta. The big righty has been mostly forgotten due to bigger trades, his own poor performance, and his season ending injury. Pivetta features a fastball at 91-96 that can touch 97, as well as a plus curveball and average slider. His big problems are his changeup and control, both of which would be less important in a bullpen role (control would still be necessary). However, his velocity and breaking balls give the Phillies incentive to let him take another try at AA before moving him to the bullpen. It has been quite the fall for Ben Lively who has gone from borderline Top 10 prospect to fighting for a job this spring. Given the other talent in the rotation, the Phillies might be wise to shift Lively to a bullpen role at some point. His velocity should increase, and he can focus on his best secondary pitch, his slider, while reserving his other pitches for changing the pace. Lively does not have huge upside, but if his stuff ticks up he would be a better option than a lot of relievers competing for MLB jobs right now. Another arm caught in the numbers crunch is Yacksel Rios, who switched back and forth between bullpen and rotation for the Threshers. His velocity is up (91-95 starting 93-95 in relief), but his secondaries are worse and his delivery is reportedly more stiff. His ability to go any number of innings at a moment’s notice could be attractive to the major league club.
This last group are not 2016 impact guys, but they could move fast. I am going stick with guys who are already in the bullpen and not starting at Clearwater or below (looking at you Alberto Tirado). As the Threshers’ bullpen moves to AA, the BlueClaws rotation moves up a level. It is unlikely that Jairo Munoz moves to the rotation because in the bullpen he shows a mid-90s fastball with life and a solid curveball. Munoz got better all season as he returned to pro-ball again, and another year could see him climb quickly. There was a lot of hope that Jason Zgardowski would take a big step during the 2015 season, but he lanky righty struggled with his command at times. However, he was very good down the stretch with an August/September line of 18.2 IP 9 H 4 ER 1.93 ERA 8 BB 20 K. Zgardowski is loose armed and has already showed velocity up to 96 in the past, he has the frame to add a bit more over the next few years. The Phillies took a lot of college relievers in the 2015 draft, two of them stand out in Kenny Koplove and Skylar Hunter. Hunter has a bit more now stuff with a fastball that is up to 94 and an above average curveball. Koplove is focusing on pitching full time for the first time in his career and has a bit more long term upside. He has a side arm delivery with a deceptive fastball and good slow curve. Both guys should move quickly and should start in hi-A. The last product of the Temple baseball team, Matt Hockenberry, spent most of the year as Lakewood’s closer, with a lot of success. His fastball is average to slightly above, but he features a good curveball and solid control. The thing that makes him more interesting that most org relievers was his strong ground ball numbers. Lastly there is a bit of a sleeper prospect in RHP Ismael Cabrera. Cabrera is a small right hander who saw his velocity jump to 91-95 in the second half of the year. He still mostly pitches off of the fastball, but features a changeup with some promise. He put up very good numbers this season and was an important weapon for Williamsport in the playoffs. Since his long term role is in the bullpen, he could advance very quickly in 2016.
Now all of this does not take into account the top of the Phillies’ starting pitching group. Players like Jerad Eickhoff, Mark Appel, and Vincent Velasquez could see dominant futures in the bullpen if things go south for them in the rotation. Throw in the usual sprinkling of veterans and some holdovers from the major league mess right now, and the bullpen is going to be all right long term. This year will feature a lot of unfamiliar faces and bad performances, but Matt Klentak and Pete Mackanin are going to churn through looking for keepers, so bad performance is unlikely to keep you around for very long.
Photo by Baseball Betsy