Phillies' bullpen problems mount as Seranthony Dominguez could face elbow surgery

Phillies' bullpen problems mount as Seranthony Dominguez could face elbow surgery

The Phillies reported back to work on Friday and were greeted by some bad news.

Reliever Seranthony Dominguez’ elbow injury is more serious than initially thought.

Depending on what a second medical opinion finds, he could be out for the remainder of the season and part of next.

General manager Matt Klentak disclosed that Dominguez had “damage” to the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Yes, that’s the bad one, the one that if damaged significantly enough requires reconstructive (Tommy John) surgery and more than a year of rehab time.

“Based on the second opinion, we'll come up with a treatment plan and one of the options may be Tommy John surgery, we just don't know,” Klentak said.

It was not immediately known who would provide the second opinion or when it would come.

Dominguez was firing 98-mph fastballs in San Diego on Tuesday night. The next day, he threw 14 pitches and walked off the mound with pain in his elbow. He had an MRI back in Philadelphia on Thursday and the results were distressing.

“Ser’s bummed. We’re bummed,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “It’s a challenging time.”

The Phillies’ bullpen has been hit extremely hard by injuries. Dominguez becomes the seventh reliever currently on the injured list,  joining Tommy Hunter, Adam Morgan, Pat Neshek, David Robertson, Victor Arano and Edubray Ramos. Arano is likely out for the season. Hunter and Ramos could be back by the end of the month. Morgan is just starting to throw.

What gives with all of these injuries?

“We're definitely digging into it,” Klentak said. “I wish I had a good answer for you or a direct answer.

“A couple of weeks ago when we were in Chicago, our manager was criticized for being too conservative with the bullpen. I do think, in large part, Kap often operates to try to protect the guys and not to overuse them and overwork them to the point of, in the Chicago series, it became a big topic of conversation. 

"As I look back at the last year and a half of our season and looking at the bullpen, it's hard to say that we've overworked anybody or abused anybody. Kap's been really careful about back-to-backs and not dry-humping guys in the bullpen. Their innings totals and their appearance totals are not that crazy at all, especially relative to the rest of the league. That's the first place you look just to see, is there something we could do differently? We don't see it there. 

“The next place you look is in the training room and these work habits and offseason programs and things like that. We've not been able to identify anything that is markedly different or worse than what we've done in prior years.”

Klentak shifted gears as he continued to talk about a possible cause for the epidemic of injuries that has hit the bullpen.

“This is not a factual assessment, more my own observation,” he said. “As the power in the game continues to escalate, and by power I mean hitters but also what the pitchers need to do to combat the power at the plate, I think it stands to reason that is putting more stress on players’ arms. They’re throwing harder, they’re throwing more breaking balls – this is not the Phillies in particular, but more kind of a league-wide trend — and it’s possible that that is contributing to more injuries.

“We also have to leave open the possibility that it’s some combination of those things, and also maybe a bunch of (stuff) happened to us at once and it was bad luck. I’m not saying that it is bad luck, but it’s certainly possible.

“I can assure you and I can assure Phillies fans that we’re looking into it and if there’s anything we can do to adjust that we will do that. But right now we have not found the exact reason.”

Klentak said the injury to Dominguez was another opportunity for members of the current bullpen to “step up.” Vince Velasquez could find himself pitching in the eighth inning. In the coming weeks, the Phils will get some of their wounded back. And though he would not admit it, Klentak will surely look for bullpen upgrades outside the organization.

One such potential upgrade — All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel — signed with the Cubs the day Dominguez injured his elbow.

The Phillies had some interest in Kimbrel, but not at the three years, $43 million he got from the Cubs.

Would the Phillies have been more aggressive trying to get Kimbrel if Dominguez’ injury had occurred, say, a week earlier?

“Probably not,” Klentak said. “I don't know. We obviously didn't find out (the severity of Dominguez’ injury) until a little while ago.

“I'm not supposed to talk about other teams' players so I'll try to make this more broad than talking about that player. In the last couple years, we've signed several veteran relievers to two-year deals, but multi-year deals nonetheless. Each of them has spent time on the IL. There have been reasons why we signed those guys to try to bolster the bullpen and I'm not saying we'd never do it again, but I do think we need to be mindful of the realities of relief pitcher health, especially multi-year commitments to veteran guys. The track record is not great.”

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J.T. Realmuto will fight for future generations in salary arbitration case against Phillies

J.T. Realmuto will fight for future generations in salary arbitration case against Phillies

More than once last summer, J.T. Realmuto expressed his affection for Philadelphia and said he’d one day be up for signing a long-term contract extension with the Phillies.

The specter of his upcoming salary arbitration hearing hasn’t changed his outlook.

“Not at all,” he said before the 116th annual Philadelphia Sports Writers Association banquet Monday night. “Anybody who knows about the arbitration process knows it’s business. It’s not necessarily me against the Phillies right now. There’s definitely not going to be any hard feelings there. So I feel like we’re at the same place we were two or three months ago as far as with the contract extension.”

Before the two sides go to work on a long-term contract extension, Realmuto is likely to play the 2020 season on a one-year contract. Barring an unlikely settlement, Realmuto will have his 2020 salary decided by an arbitration panel next month. He is seeking $12.4 million. The Phillies’ arbitration offer is $10 million. The arbitration panel will hear arguments from both sides then pick one number or the other.

Realmuto knows the game. He went to arbitration with the Miami Marlins two years ago and lost.

“I have a good understanding of the process,” he said. “I know it’s not the Phillies trying to slight me. It’s more the system. There are no hard feelings there.”

Realmuto, who turns 29 in March, is coming off a season in which he solidified himself as baseball’s best catcher while making $5.9 million. He was an All-Star. He was the catcher on the inaugural All-MLB team and he won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in the National League. He led all big-league catchers in hits, RBIs, total bases and extra-base hits while swatting a career-high 25 homers. He threw out 37 runners trying to steal, the most in the majors.

Realmuto’s 2019 season put him in a good position to win his arbitration case.

But he made it clear that this is about more than just himself.

"It’s not me against the Phillies,” he said. “It’s the system that we’re trying to fight right now.  I’m trying to go out and set a precedent for future catchers in the game and I feel like I had a season worthy of doing that so I’m going to fight for that.

"This is not because the Phillies didn’t give us a chance to come to an agreement. We’re fighting for a cause, fighting for the rest of the catchers. Historically, catchers have not been treated well in the arbitration process and we feel like this is an opportunity to advance that for the catchers. Just being able to fight for those guys is something I take pride in. I believe in fighting for future generations and I’m excited to do it."

Once Realmuto’s 2020 salary is established in mid-February, the Phillies are expected to initiate talks on an extension that would begin at the start of the 2021 season. Those talks should commence during spring training. A contract extension is expected to cover up to five seasons with an average annual value of over $20 million.

Realmuto, who was honored as the PSWA’s Athlete of the Year for 2019, was joined by new Phillies manager Joe Girardi at the banquet.

“I’m really excited to play for him,” Realmuto said. “I feel like he’s got a lot of feel. He knows exactly what he wants to do as a manager and has a lot of confidence and he’ll be able to instill that confidence in us.”

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Vince Velasquez 'disappointed' by Astros’ scandal, ready to 'click' in Phillies’ rotation

Vince Velasquez 'disappointed' by Astros’ scandal, ready to 'click' in Phillies’ rotation

Vince Velasquez broke into the majors with the Houston Astros in 2015. His manager was A.J. Hinch. Jeff Luhnow was the general manager.

You know where this is going.

“I never saw anything,” Velasquez said Monday. “A lot of people have asked me, but I wasn’t there when it happened.

“It was shocking to hear about. And a little bit disappointing.”

The Astros were found to have used an illicit sign stealing scheme during their 2017 World Series championship season. Major League Baseball last week suspended Hinch and Luhnow for the 2020 season and Houston ownership followed up by firing both men. The explosive issue also cost Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran their jobs as managers of the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets, respectively. Cora was the Astros’ bench coach, and a mastermind of the scheme, in 2017, and Beltran was a player on the team.

Velasquez pitched in just 19 games for the Astros in 2015. He was traded to the Phillies in December of that year.

Pitchers and catchers have always been cognizant of changing their signs and varying their sequences in running through signs, especially when there is a runner on second base, to combat sign stealing. Velasquez predicted that pitchers and catchers will be even more diligent in light of the Astros' scandal.

“Now, we have to be more observant of what we’re doing,” he said. “I think it’s going to be part of the discussion [in spring training.] You have to learn to protect yourself.”

Velasquez is spending the week in Philadelphia helping the team with some promotional work. (He even plans to throw a couple of bullpen sessions in the cages at Citizens Bank Park.) On Monday, Velasquez and teammate Roman Quinn joined former Phillies Milt Thompson and Mickey Morandini at a youth instructional clinic at the Ryan Howard Training Center in South Philadelphia. Forty-five young players affiliated with the Phillies/MLB Urban Youth Academy and RBI program showed up a cold January day to get a head start on the season and some tips from the Phillies players past and present.

Quinn missed significant time last season with a torn groin muscle, the latest in a series of injuries that has robbed the exciting outfielder of playing time in his career. He has made changes to his offseason conditioning program and believes he can stay healthy in 2020 and make a run at the Phillies’ starting centerfield job. As it stands right now, he will battle Adam Haseley for the job in camp.

“I trust my abilities and I know if I’m healthy then it’s hard to keep me out of the lineup,” Quinn said.

Like Quinn, Velasquez will be in a spring-training battle.

The top four spots in the Phillies’ rotation are set with Aaron Nola, Zach Wheeler, Zach Eflin and Jake Arrieta. Velasquez will compete with Nick Pivetta for the fifth spot in the rotation. The loser of the competition will not necessarily be out of a job as the Phillies need bullpen help and one of the two could end up there.

Velasquez knows where he wants to be.

“I can play any role, but I want to start,” the 27-year-old right-hander said. “I want to be in the rotation. I want to be in that playoff run and I want to be that guy for that game.

“I know I have a job to earn. That’s my main focus. Battling.”

Velasquez, as Phillies fans know by now, is blessed with a tremendous arm. However, he has struggled to put his talents together and arrive at that place known as consistency. He runs high pitch counts and fails to get through the middle of games. He averaged just 4 2/3 innings in his 23 starts last season.

Velasquez knows it’s time for him to pitch deeper into games and he says, “I want that bad.” He has already established a telephone/text/video relationship with new pitching coach Bryan Price in hopes of picking up some keys to doing that.

“We’re in communication,” Velasquez said. “I’ve spoken to him a number of times and sent him videos of some of my bullpens.”

Velasquez avoided salary arbitration and will make $3.6 million this season. As his price tag goes up, so do expectations and the impatience of team officials. He might not be around at this time next season if he doesn’t produce in 2020.

“I’m very optimistic this is the year it clicks,” Velasquez said. “I know I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but I feel like I’m starting to figure a lot of things out. A lot of people tend to figure things out after two or three years in the major leagues and I think this is that time for me to put all the pieces together.

“My time is due. It’s really come down to that point where I need to plug in all the pieces.”

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