For a few seasons, the Phillies’ primary concern has been the bullpen. Even last year’s pennant-winning squad succeeded largely in spite of a relief corps that finished the regular season ranked 23rd in ERA.
Philadelphia followed up its NL championship with an active offseason headlined by free agent deals for Trea Turner and Taijuan Walker. Those pacts have had mixed results in the early going, but Philadelphia has found more defined success in another area — a complete restructure of the bullpen.
Seven pitchers have thrown 30+ innings out of the ’pen for Rob Thomson on the season. Six of them were acquired since the start of last offseason. One of the offseason pickups, left-hander Andrew Vasquez, has since been designated for assignment and lost on waivers to the Tigers — though even he provided the Phils with 39 2/3 frames of 2.27 ERA ball before being cut.
Of the relievers currently on Philadelphia’s active roster, only Seranthony Domínguez was on the roster at this time a season ago. Some of that is by chance; José Alvarado is currently on the injured list and will surely reassume a high-leverage role when healthy. Yet it also hints at how aggressively the front office has turned things over.
It’s hard to argue with the results. Philadelphia relievers entered play Thursday ranked ninth in the majors with a 3.76 ERA. Their 24.9% strikeout rate ranks eighth. They’re in the bottom half of the league in blown saves. Philadelphia’s bullpen isn’t the best in the league, but it’s strong enough the front office went through deadline season without supplementing the group.
A look at some of the Phils’ bullpen upgrades since last winter:
Philadelphia rolled the dice on Kimbrel at a time when his stock was at a low ebb. The veteran righty is one of the best relievers of his generation, but his recent track record has been up-and-down. Kimbrel was excellent for the Cubs in the first half of 2021, struggled after a deadline trade to the White Sox, then had an average ’22 season with the Dodgers. While his 3.75 ERA through 60 frames last year wasn’t bad, the Dodgers were concerned enough about his performance down the stretch to leave him as a healthy scratch in the postseason.
The Phils guaranteed Kimbrel $10MM on a one-year free agent deal. They could hardly have expected better than the performance he’s turned in. Through 52 innings, he has a 3.12 ERA while locking down 19 of 21 save opportunities. Kimbrel has fanned an excellent 34.6% of opposing hitters after that mark dipped to 27.7% a season ago. He earned his ninth All-Star nod, has solidified the ninth inning, and is trending towards a more lucrative free agent trip next winter.
Strahm inked a two-year, $15MM free agent pact. He has been an effective and versatile piece of the pitching staff. Pressed into rotation duty early on by injuries, Strahm was solid over nine starts. He’s been downright excellent in his traditional bullpen role. The emergence of Cristopher Sánchez and deadline pickup of Michael Lorenzen should position Philadelphia to keep Strahm in relief for the rest of the year.
Over 40 1/3 frames as a reliever, the southpaw carries a 2.68 ERA. He’s stifling opponents to a .207/.248/.407 batting line, striking out 31% of batters faced against a tidy 5.7% walk rate. Hitters are swinging through 14% of his offerings. Strahm handles hitters from both sides of the plate and has worked multiple innings out of the ’pen on 13 occasions.
The most surprising name among this group, Hoffman wasn’t technically an offseason pickup. Granted his release by the Twins at the conclusion of Spring Training, he signed a minor league pact with Philadelphia during the first week of the regular season. The veteran righty spent a month in Triple-A before triggering an opt-out clause that required the team to either add him to the MLB roster or release him.
Philadelphia chose the former option. They’re unquestionably pleased they did. Playing on a prorated $1.3MM salary, Hoffman has turned in a career-low 2.86 ERA over 34 2/3 innings. He’s striking out over 33% of opponents after never topping a 23.6% strikeout rate in any prior season. Hoffman has completely overhauled his pitch mix. His average fastball speed is up to 97.1 MPH after checking in at 94.3 MPH with the Reds last year. More importantly, he’s leaned dramatically more heavily on a slider that has become one of the best weapons in the sport.
Among relievers with 30+ innings, just 12 are inducing whiffs at a higher rate than Hoffman’s 16.6% clip. After spending the better part of two months in mop-up work, Hoffman has deservedly pitched his way into higher-leverage innings coming out of the All-Star Break. At age 30, the former ninth overall pick is showing all the traits of an impact reliever. Only adding to the appeal: Hoffman will be eligible for arbitration next winter, so the Phils can affordably keep him around for another season.
Philadelphia’s highest-profile trade pickup of the offseason, Soto has had more mixed results than any of Kimbrel, Strahm or Hoffman. His 4.73 ERA through 45 2/3 frames isn’t eye-catching. The southpaw’s underlying marks are better than the ERA would suggest, albeit not quite what the Phils likely envisioned when sending Matt Vierling, Donny Sands and Nick Maton to Detroit.
Soto has struck out a decent but unexceptional 23.4% of batters faced. He’s gotten his walk rate to a career-low 9.4% clip and is picking up grounders on a solid 48.4% of balls in play. His production has been exceedingly platoon dependent, however. Left-handed hitters have a pitiful .100/.179/.183 line through 67 plate appearances, while righties have tagged Soto for a .279/.360/.396 clip in 125 trips. He’s a useful reliever, but it’s hard not to feel there’s still some untapped upside with a lefty whose sinker averages 98 MPH. Soto is making just under $4MM this season and eligible for arbitration twice more.
The Phils have had other more modest additions as well. Yunior Marté, picked up in a January trade with the Giants, has contributed 35 mostly low-leverage innings. Despite average peripherals, he owns a 5.14 ERA. May waiver claim Dylan Covey was tattooed in his lone start of the year but has chipped in a 2.96 ERA through 24 1/3 innings of long relief.
While those are relatively minor contributions, the Phillies turned the bullpen from a potentially serious weakness to a decent strength in a matter of months. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has faced criticism in prior seasons regarding the bullpens his front offices have put together. While it remains to be seen how this group will perform in October should the Phils hang onto a Wild Card spot, the regular season results have been quite strong — headlined by a pair of adept free agent pickups and hitting on one of the best minor league pacts of the season.