Countdown to Clearwater: A look at how bullpen roles could shake out

Countdown to Clearwater: A look at how bullpen roles could shake out

The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Florida, on Feb. 14. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and storylines of camp.

Day 6: The bullpen

It’s not difficult to look at the Phillies' spring training roster and pinpoint the eight starting position players and the five-man starting pitching rotation.

There is a little mystery in the bullpen, however.

We know the names. 

But how will the roles shake out?

Heading into this offseason, much of the talk surrounding the Phillies involved adding a bat or two to the majors’ worst offense. Eventually, the team did that by trading for Howie Kendrick and signing free-agent Michael Saunders.

But as last season ended and plans for the offseason were hatched, there was just as much talk in the front office about improving the bullpen as there was about enhancing the offense.

General manager Matt Klentak put that talk into action early in the offseason when he picked up veteran right-hander Pat Neshek in a deal with the Houston Astros.

On the eve of the winter meetings, he added another veteran in right-hander in Joaquin Benoit.

This experienced duo will join an existing core of Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos in forming the backbone of what the team hopes is an improved bullpen in 2017. Phillies relievers ranked 28th in the majors with a 5.01 ERA last year and they gave up 82 homers, second-most in the majors.

“We got down in the middle innings a lot last year and the bullpen couldn’t keep us close,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’re deeper in the ‘pen this year and we should be able to stay within striking range. That should account for a few more wins.”

The biggest question in the bullpen coming into Clearwater is who will be the closer. Gomez came out of nowhere and solved a problem with 37 saves last season, but he struggled badly in September and lost the job. Neris, who struck out 11.4 batters in 79 games last season, has the stuff — a power fastball and a baffling splitter — to do the job. So does Ramos. And Benoit has filled just about every role in the bullpen, including closer.

For now, the job appears to be Gomez’s to lose.

“I wouldn’t say it’s wide open,” Mackanin said. “I’m going to give Gomez every opportunity to show that he’s the guy that pitched the first five months and not the guy that pitched in September.”

If Gomez doesn’t nail down the job, the Phillies clearly have other candidates. Last year, Gomez did not take over the job until the first week of the regular season, after others had failed. It would not be a shock if the role does not become ironed out until the season is underway again this season.

Neshek, 36, has a funky delivery that has allowed him to be very effective against right-handed hitters in his career. He lines up for a specialty role.

Benoit, 39, has been one of the game's most consistent relievers over the last decade. Over the last seven seasons, he has a WHIP of 0.98. That’s the third-best among relievers over that span, trailing only Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel. Benoit had a tale of two seasons with Seattle and Toronto last season. He registered a 5.18 ERA in 26 games with Seattle then was traded to Toronto in July. With the Jays, he pitched 23 2/3 innings over 25 games and gave up just one run. For the season, he struck out 10.4 batters per nine innings. He missed the postseason with a torn calf muscle.

“One of the things that was appealing to us about Joaquin is he has pitched the sixth, he's pitched the seventh, he's pitched the eighth, he's pitched the ninth, and he's been good in all of those roles at various times throughout his career," Klentak said. "We feel better that we have several players in our bullpen that can compete for the ninth, the eighth, the seventh, the sixth. We made our bullpen better."

Neshek and Benoit fit the model of players that Klentak targeted this winter — veterans on short-term deals that could be trade chips in July. Other players who fit the model include Kendrick and starting pitcher Clay Buchholz. Holdover Jeremy Hellickson also fits. There’s no guarantee that there will be a market for these players, no guarantee that Klentak will be able to swing a deal, as was evidenced with Hellickson last summer. Benoit, who is making $7.5 million, could be end up being the most coveted of the Phillies’ trade candidates if he pitches well. Contending teams are always looking for affordable veteran bullpen help for the stretch drive.

The list of bullpen candidates includes familiar names such as Luis Garcia, Dalier Hinojosa, Colton Murray, Michael Mariot and former New York Met Pedro Beato, who is on a minor-league deal.

The most glaring shortcoming in the Phillies’ bullpen is a lack of left-handers. The team has just one lefty reliever, Joely Rodriguez, on the 40-man roster, and he has just 12 games of big-league experience. Veterans lefties Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos, both in camp on minor-league deals, will get a chance to make the team, and it's possible that lefty starter Adam Morgan could be used as a reliever. Also, don't rule out the possibility of Klentak adding a lefty reliever through a signing, trade or waiver claim as the spring unfolds.

Next: Day 7 – A look at the competition for bench roles

MLB Playoffs: Justin Turner hits walk-off HR to give Dodgers 2-0 lead over Cubs

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MLB Playoffs: Justin Turner hits walk-off HR to give Dodgers 2-0 lead over Cubs


LOS ANGELES -- Justin Turner hit a three-run homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Chicago Cubs 4-1 on Sunday to take a 2-0 lead in the NL Championship Series.

The red-bearded slugger connected on the 29th anniversary of the Dodgers' last game-ending postseason homer: Kirk Gibson's famous pinch-hit drive to beat Oakland in the 1988 World Series opener.

"One of my earliest baseball memories, I was 4 years old at my grandma's house watching that game in `88 and seeing Gibby hit that homer," a smiling Turner said. "So yeah, it feels pretty cool. I thought about doing the fist pump around the bases, but we'll wait until we get to the World Series for that, hopefully."

Turner drove in every run for Los Angeles, going the other way for a tying single in the fifth before sending a long shot to center field off John Lackey in the ninth. A fan wearing a blue Dodgers jersey reached over a railing to catch the ball on the fly.

Turner's second homer of the postseason ended another dramatic night for the Dodgers, who remained unbeaten in these playoffs and moved within two wins of their first World Series appearance since 1988.

"It's very cool, and J.T., we were talking about it in there after the game," manager Dave Roberts said. "Twenty-nine years to the day. It was special. Our guys feel it."

Game 3 in the best-of-seven series is Tuesday night at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Midseason acquisition Yu Darvish starts for the Dodgers against Kyle Hendricks.

Yasiel Puig drew his third walk of the game leading off the ninth, and Charlie Culberson bunted him to second. After losing pitcher Brian Duensing struck out pinch-hitter Kyle Farmer, Chicago manager Joe Maddon went to the bullpen for the 38-year-old Lackey, who pitched on consecutive days for the first time in his 15-year career.

Lackey got the call over All-Star closer Wade Davis, and the veteran starter walked Chris Taylor on six tense pitches.

Turner stepped up and ended it with his fourth career playoff homer. He's been at his best in October, batting .377 with 22 RBIs in the postseason.

"We've been doing it all year long," Turner said. "We're never out of a game. As long as we have outs left, we're going to keep fighting."

Completing the poetry of the moment, a fan in a Chase Utley jersey in the center-field bleachers caught the ball in his glove.

Addison Russell homered in the fifth for the Cubs, who are down early in this rematch of the 2016 NLCS. Chicago won that series in six games and went on to its first World Series championship since 1908, while the Dodgers have been absent from the Fall Classic since 1988.

Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen got the victory with a hitless ninth despite hitting Anthony Rizzo on the hand with a one-out pitch. That ended the Los Angeles bullpen's impressive streak of 22 straight Cubs retired to begin the NLCS, but the Dodgers have thrown eight hitless and scoreless innings of relief in the NLCS.

After a collective offensive effort drove the Dodgers to a 5-2 win in Game 1, Turner did it all in Game 2. He has 10 RBIs in the Dodgers' five postseason games, getting five in the playoff opener against Arizona.

Jon Lester yielded three hits and five walks while failing to get out of the fifth inning in the shortest start of his long postseason career, but the Dodgers couldn't take advantage of a rare shaky night by the Cubs' star left-hander.

Rich Hill struck out eight in five more impressive innings for the Dodgers, but he was pulled for pinch-hitter Curtis Granderson in the fifth in a debatable decision by Roberts.

Russell was off to a 4-for-22 start in the postseason with nine strikeouts before the slugging shortstop put a leadoff homer into the short porch in left field.

Turner evened it moments later by poking a single to right after a leadoff double by Culberson, the Dodgers' improbably successful replacement for injured All-Star shortstop Corey Seager.

The Dodgers chased Lester with two outs in the fifth, but reliever Carl Edwards Jr. came through after several recent postseason struggles, striking out pinch-hitter Chase Utley and then pitching a strong sixth.

Lester was the co-MVP of last season's NLCS, winning Game 5 at Dodger Stadium and yielding two runs over 13 innings in the series. He had nothing near the same success against the Dodgers' revamped lineup in this one, issuing four walks in the first four innings and repeatedly escaping jams.

Dodgers third base coach Chris Woodward held up Turner in the third when it appeared he could have scored from first on Cody Bellinger's double to the gap.

Javier Baez, the other co-MVP of last season's NLCS for Chicago, got to third base in the third with one out but also was stranded.

Up next
Cubs: Hendricks dominated Chicago's playoff opener with seven scoreless innings against the Nationals, but yielded four runs in four innings during the team's wild Game 5 victory in Washington. He is starting on normal rest.

Dodgers: Darvish was outstanding in Game 3 against the Diamondbacks, earning his first career postseason victory with seven strikeouts over five innings of two-hit ball. He was acquired 

MLB Playoffs: Altuve's dash lifts Verlander, Astros over Yanks in Game 2

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MLB Playoffs: Altuve's dash lifts Verlander, Astros over Yanks in Game 2

HOUSTON — Jose Altuve raced home on Carlos Correa's double in the ninth inning, Justin Verlander struck out 13 in a complete game and the Houston Astros beat the New York Yankees 2-1 Saturday for a 2-0 lead in the AL Championship Series.

Correa also homered, but Houston needed a daring dash from Altuve to get Verlander a win. The 5-foot-6 AL MVP front-runner reached with a one-out single against closer Aroldis Chapman , then sprinted around from first base on Correa's shot to right-center field, sliding past catcher Gary Sanchez as he misplayed a short-hop. Altuve had two more hits and is 13 for 23 (.565) this postseason.

Verlander pitched another gem for the Astros, setting a postseason career best for strikeouts and allowing five hits in his second career complete game in the postseason. He threw a season-high 124 pitches and retired baby Bronx Bombers Aaron Judge, Sanchez and Greg Bird in the top of the ninth.

In the bottom of the inning, Judge picked up Correa's hit in right field and threw toward second base. Shortstop Didi Gregorius fielded there, and his throw beat Altuve to the plate by a few steps. But Sanchez bobbled the one-hop as Altuve slid by, and the Astros mobbed Correa in shallow center field. Altuve pointed toward Correa and his teammates from behind the plate (see full recap).

Puig, Taylor power Dodgers past Cubs in NLCS Game 1
LOS ANGELES -- Chris Taylor hit a tiebreaking homer in the sixth inning, Yasiel Puig added a homer and an RBI double to his dynamite postseason, and the Los Angeles Dodgers overcame a short start by Clayton Kershaw for a 5-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs on Saturday night in the NL Championship Series opener.

Charlie Culberson doubled, drove in the tying run and scored another while replacing injured All-Star shortstop Corey Seager for the resourceful Dodgers, who improved to 4-0 in this postseason.

With another collective offensive effort and four innings of perfect relief pitching, Los Angeles calmly overcame an early two-run deficit and took the first game of this rematch of the 2016 NLCS, won in six games by Chicago on the way to its first World Series championship in 108 years.

Game 2 is Sunday, with Rich Hill starting at home against Chicago's Jon Lester (see full recap).