2023 Season Preview: The Best Case Scenario for the Bullpen

Mar 23, 2023 - 1:30 PM
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For a group that has been the team’s most constant concern over the past few years, the Phillies bullpen had a bit of a breakout last season. Sure, they finished 23rd in ERA but they were 12th in FIP and 5th in K/9. Add in a revamped roster that shed dead weight in exchange for a future Hall of Famer, a flame-throwing lefty with upside, and a jack-of-all-trades with starting and closing experience and we could be looking at a top-5 reliever group this year. What’s the bullpen’s best case scenario in 2023?

Seranthony Domínguez

Domínguez was the bullpen’s biggest unknown entering last season. After having missed over a year and a half with an elbow injury, it remained to be seen whether or not he could recapture the promise he showed in 2018 and 2019. Seranthony quieted those doubts, positioning himself as the Phillies’ top righty bullpen arm. Through August 15th, Domínguez had posted a 1.45 ERA over 43 ⅓ innings with 52 strikeouts. After dealing with a triceps injury and a couple of shaky outings in September, Seranthony had himself a fantastic postseason where he posted a 1.69 ERA, 0.75 WHIP and 18 strikeouts over 10 ⅔ innings.

A substantial part of his success, especially early in the season, came from increased use of his sinker. While he had experimented with the pitch in the past, it became his top weapon last year, especially against right-handed batters. His dominance last season earned him a two-year extension with a club option for 2025 and he appears primed to be the team’s most reliable late-inning weapon. That’s subject to change with such a talented staff but for now, Seranthony’s best case scenario is that he takes firm hold of the closing job while putting together another dominant season.

José Alvarado

If Seranthony was the pen’s biggest unknown coming into last season, then Alvarado was its biggest wild-card. After a shaky 2021 paired with a 7.62 ERA through his first 17 appearances a season ago led to his demotion near the end of May, Alvarado came back to the majors with a vengeance, posting a 1.66 ERA and 64 strikeouts over 38 innings of work. His 37.9% K rate was 5th among qualified relievers and his 1.92 FIP was good enough for 3rd-best. Strike one, strike two, you know the rest.

Alvarado has always thrown gas but he’s finally able to (mostly) keep it under control. The next step will be to keep the magic going through the playoffs - a year of postseason experience and a stronger group behind him should make doing that much easier. Like Domínguez, he earned himself an extension in the offseason and is on track to be the team’s top lefty bullpen arm for the next few years. While the chance is there that he regresses, his upside this year is astronomical. Besides, this is a best-case-scenarios article - let’s shoot for the stars! The best case scenario for Alvarado is finishing the season as one of the five best relievers in baseball.

Gregory Soto

Apart from a certain All-Star shortstop, Soto was perhaps the Phillies’ biggest acquisition of the offseason. He’s coming off of his second-straight All-Star season in which he posted 30 saves for a moribund Tigers squad. Like Alvarado, he’s a hard-throwing lefty who has control issues, posting the 6th-highest BB/9 rate among relievers last season (5.07).

A few courses at Caleb Cotham University could do wonders for Soto just like it did for Alvarado. If he can get his walks down to even a pedestrian level, he could outshine the rest of the closer committee and really wow people this year.

The best case scenario for Soto is that he reigns in his stuff and tag-teams with Alvarado to form an overpowering one-two punch of hard-throwing lefty relievers.

Craig Kimbrel

Look, he’s not the Craig Kimbrel that led the NL in saves four years in a row or made seven out of eight All-Star Games during the 2010s. Hopefully, he’s not the Craig Kimbrel who lost his closing gig at the end of last season with the Dodgers and was left off of their NLDS roster entirely. Most likely, he’s somewhere in between - a reliever who is in the back-nine of what seems to be a Hall of Fame career transitioning into a committee role.

Kimbrel’s certainly going to close some games for this team and just might lead the team in saves but he’s more likely to be used in a setup role most nights. Let’s ignore his half season as the 8th-inning guy for the White Sox in 2021 and anticipate Kimbrel coming into a fresh start and embracing a new role here in Philadelphia where, by the way, he hasn’t allowed a single run in 19 ⅔ career innings at the Bank.

Kimbrel’s best case scenario is that he has found a time machine to bring back a younger version of himself, leading the team in saves as he exceeds 400 for his career while wearing Phillies pinstripes (Braves fans are in shambles).

Matt Strahm

Strahm is an intriguing addition to the Phils’ bullpen. He’s done a little bit of everything at the major-league level, from making 16 starts for the Padres in 2019 to saving four games for the Red Sox last year. Here, he profiles best as a middle reliever who can be used as a break-glass starter or long reliever as necessary. That “as necessary” appears to be coming sooner rather than later given the state of the starting rotation and the team is stretching him out accordingly. His stuff is interesting and he could absolutely take a step up with this coaching staff. Regardless of his role, Strahm’s best case scenario sees him providing reliability in the middle innings and continuing to show improvement with his fastball.

The Other Guys

Connor Brogdon was better than you probably remember last year, although the end of the regular season was a little rough (to be fair, a good chunk of the team had a bumpy September). He was pretty reliable in the playoffs and that version of Brogdon would come in real handy this year. Likewise, Andrew Bellatti was pretty solid last year, especially in the postseason where he gave up just one run in seven innings.

Nick Nelson’s injury aside, he’s the incumbent and likely mop-up long reliever. At his best, he can eat some innings and not get hit too hard. While he’s unavailable to start the season, either Yunior Marte or Michael Plassmeyer will probably make the Opening Day Roster in his place. Spring training standout Marte is probably the most intriguing option, but Plassmeyer gives the Phils a spot-starting option with Ranger Suárez on the mend. Chris Sanchez and Erich Uelmen are also worth keeping an eye on, but neither had a particularly good spring and will most likely find themselves in Lehigh Valley as emergency contributors to the big-league club.

The best case scenario for the back of the bullpen at large is that they’re not relied upon much given the strength of the rest of the pitching staff, but provide sturdy, reliable work when needed.

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