“We think he can close games” Dave Dombrowski told the press on December 1, after signing 30-year-old reliever Corey Knebel to a one-year, $10 million deal. Dombrowski then clarified that Knebel had not been promised the closest role, but would have every chance of taking the job.
It wasn’t exactly a glowing endorsement of the team’s only marquee signing, but Dombrowski had to be careful. He knew there was no point in making promises or setting high expectations. The burden of bullpen failures was felt through everything he said — and didn’t say.
Beyond the context of Dombrowski’s statements, however, lies the bigger and uglier truth of the perilous situation the team really finds itself in.
It’s the fact that the Phillies is like a mansion, perched on the edge of a scenic cliff, overlooking the ocean. From the photos, the home is exquisite – from the lavish marble flooring to the ornate interior decor and floor-to-ceiling windows, it’s clear no expense has been spared. In person, however, the property is little more than a facade – the frame is built on the cheap, the walls are crumbling on top of each other, and the cliff on which it is built is being eroded by the waves in sunken.
Despite all the money this team has spent, its chances of reaching the playoffs have not improved. Despite being NL MVP, NL runner-up Cy Young, and baseball’s top catcher on their all-star list, they still often play in front of half-full crowds. While their aging core players have a limited window of contention, they lack the homegrown talent base to plan for the future.
Even if it doesn’t look like it, the Phillies are holding their ground. Like the mansion, the cliff they found themselves on — their immediate playoff contention goal — is eroding. Without a strong agricultural system, their long-term future is bleak. All they have is a pipe dream of discord, held together by hope. They’ve spent a decade away from the playoffs, and the past few years stuck in an unyielding cycle of mediocrity — thanks to property too cheap to break the luxury tax and an agricultural system too sterile to top the roster and warrant new ones. expenses. . Many waves crash into the team’s foundations, waiting for them to disappear, but perhaps none are as big as the bullpen and Corey Knebel.
Maybe Dombrowski was so careful talking about Knebel, because he didn’t want to wear anything bad. That would make sense because so much of this team is based on hope and speculation. After all, the Phillies are hoping that Knebel, who had Tommy John surgery in 2019 and has only pitched 39 regular season innings in the past 3 years, can stay healthy for a full season. They’re hoping Knebel, who relies only on fastball and curveball, can be effective over 50-70 innings instead of just 25.2. Above all, they hope Knebel can become “the guy”, fitting into the closest role and, in turn, bringing stability to a “pen full of talented but volatile arms”.
What’s dangerous about all this hope surrounding Knebel and the pen is that it all seems pretty speculative. Although Knebel was a good rookie and could make a good matchup, he was not the slam-dunk free agent like Rafael Iglesias or Aaron Loup. He’s a 30-year-old two-length reliever with a spotty injury history and just one great year under his belt (2017). In addition, the Phillies are betting on this his success through increased use of the curveball – 42% of his 2021 pitches, .186 BAA – especially in the number of fastballs, will deceive hitters over a full season.
Perhaps even more concerning is the lack of stability under Knebel, assuming he takes the closest role. Three of five relievers who has recorded the most innings in 2021 (Ranger Suarez, Hector Neris and Archie Bradley) won’t be there in 2022. Is the gaping hole left behind – 165.2 innings, 3.04 ERA combined, to be filled by Connor Brogdon, Jose Alvarado, and Sam Coonrod? Although talented, all three missed time due to injury, struggled with command and proved too inconsistent to trust beyond the 7th round. It seems recklessly optimistic to assume that with Knebel closer, part of the team that made 34 saves and posted the 6th-best ERA (4.60) and BAA (.246) in baseball will miraculously turn things around.
It’s obvious that even in the best-case scenario for Knebel’s performance in 2022, quality extra arms are needed. And in the worst-case scenario – Knebel can’t grab the closest role, is running out of time due to injury – chaos reminiscent of the past two years ensues.
Anyway, when the lockout ends, Dombrowski will have to take a few steps. While the safest bet would be to throw a ton of cash or draft picks at a near high end like Kenley Jansen or Craig Kimbrel and have Knebel back them up, the Phillies probably won’t. In fact, given the roster’s holes in left and center field — areas where the team is likely to spend more when it comes to payroll — and Middleton’s reluctance to break the luxury tax, a another lifter at $10 million or more AAV isn’t likely to happen. That is.
So who can they realistically target in free agency? Among the best relievers available are Ryan Tepera, 34 (2.79 ERA, 1.8 WAR, 74 SO, 61.1 IP) and Colin McHugh (1.55 ERA, 1.9 WAR, 74 SO, 64 IP) . While both of these may be out of reach in the $10 AAV range, more accessible targets could include Joe Kelly (2.86 ERA, 0.7 WAR, 50 SO, 44 IP) or Brad Hand (3.90 ERA, -0.3 WAR, 61 SO, 64.2 IP).
If the Phillies are serious about avoiding another year of mediocrity and maintaining that crumbling playoff dream, it will have to be done through action — a willingness to spend the amount needed on proven players — not just blind hope.
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