2023 season preview: The State of the Bullpen

Mar 20, 2023 - 1:30 PM
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Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

The Locks

Seranthony Dominguez, José Alvarado, Gregory Soto, Craig Kimbrel, Matt Strahm, Andrew Bellatti, Connor Brogdon

The Fringe

Nick Nelson, Erich Uelmen, Yunior Marte

What to expect

In these mostly lost years since the Ed Wade-built and Pat Gillick-perfected glory days, the bullpen has been a glaring and often painful reminder of the level of excellence that was and is still a requisite component of a championship-winning roster when it comes to the back end of the pitching staff.

The Phillies finished second in baseball and first in the league in bullpen ERA on their way to a title in 2008. In the fourteen seasons since, they have averaged 20th in MLB and 11th in the NL, finishing no higher than eighth/seventh respectively way back in 2011.

After another below average regular season in 2022, Phillies’ relievers are looking to build on a strong postseason combined with a fairly drastic overhaul to finally become a top tier unit in 2023.

The bullpen suffered a 4.27 ERA in 2022, 23rd in the majors. The likes of Brad Hand, Corey Knebel, Jeurys Familia, David Robertson and Sam Coonrod combined for 159.2 IP and a 4.06 ERA last season. They have all been sent packing and have been replaced by Craig Kimbrel, Gregory Soto and Matt Strahm, who in 2022 combined for 165 IP and a 3.60 ERA. Kimbrel’s career obviously needs no introduction but he and Soto both have significant experience closing out games. Seranthony Dominguez figures to get the majority of the save opportunities if healthy and rested, but having experienced alternatives as fallbacks should be somewhat of a safety blanket for Rob Thomson when navigating the later innings throughout the season.

Holdovers from last year expected to contribute again similarly this season are Dominguez, José Alvarado, Andrew Bellatti and Connor Brogdon. Alvarado especially should be motivated to erase the memory of a postseason wherein he was the least effective member of the Phillies’ relief corps, posting a 5.56 ERA across 12 appearances and allowing three playoff home runs after allowing only two in the regular season.

The team is likely to break camp with 13-14 pitchers, meaning there are only 1-2 spots open aside from the starters and the seven “locks” listed above. Nick Nelson logged some admirable innings last year, but I think anyone who witnessed most of them would rather a more reliable candidate emerge, for the sake of heart health.

The Phillies picked up Yunior Marte and Erich Uelmen in a couple of quiet trades with the Giants and Cubs back in January. Both debuted in the majors last season with their former clubs and were obviously mediocre enough to be expendable, but Marte has pitched well this spring while Uelmen has struggled. But for what it’s worth, CBS Sports named Uelmen as their potential Phillies’ breakout candidate for this season. Here’s what they had to say:

Depending on how you define the parameters of a “sweeper,” Uelmen may have had the second-highest whiff rate of any in the majors (min. 100 thrown). He comes at hitters from a drop-down slot that gives him similar release heights as those employed by Paul Sewald, Seth Martinez, and other viable big-league relievers. We suspect the Phillies will ask him to throw his sweeper more than he did last season (29 percent), and we won’t be surprised when he becomes a solid middle-relief option.

On paper, this is the most solid, qualified bullpen the Phillies have fielded in over a decade. A perennial weakness transforming into an asset could prove a major boon for a team intent on bolstering itself for a repeat title run.

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