Phillies bench, bullpen and rotation notes with an eye toward spring training

The best teams are the ones that have anticlimactic spring training. Competition is good, but certainty is more reassuring—especially when it comes to eight spots in the lineup, four spots in the rotation, and seven spots in the bullpen. the Phillies want an anticlimactic spring because it means the plan worked. The whole camp, which begins Feb. 16, will be about 19-year-old Andrew Painter and his quest to defy timelines and win a spot in the rotation.

The rest of it?

“The bench roles are going to be exciting,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said Wednesday. “There’s probably one more spot in the bullpen that we have to figure out. It’s going to be a deep camp.”

It’s a good thing when an outsized amount of spring attention goes to two bench jobs. The Phillies have had way (way) bigger problems in previous springs. They also know the importance of accumulating useful depth; last summer was enough evidence.

But, with a more secure depth chart, it can be harder for a team to convince a quality player to come aboard as a reserve. There might be at-bats early in the season while Bryce Harper continues his rehab from Tommy John surgery. Once Harper returns, the Phillies have nine regulars for nine spots in the lineup. Injuries happen. There will be at-bats for the reserves. It’s just that other teams can probably guarantee more of them in January than the Phillies can.

So, Adam Duvall agreed to a $7 million deal to be Boston‘s center fielder. Kevin Pillar accepted a minor-league deal that could pay $3 million with Atlanta because there is a path toward him seeing time in left field for the Braves. Brian Anderson agreed to a $3.5 million deal with Milwaukeea team that will run a few platoons.

The Phillies could use another right-handed reserve. They lean lefty among potential bench players — Garrett Stubbs, Jake CaveDarick Hall, Kody Clemens other Simon Muzziotti are all left-handed hitters. Edmundo Sosa, a right hitter, can play anywhere on the field. So can Dalton Guthrie.

“I have a lot of confidence in Dalton Guthrie,” Thomson said. “I really do. … I feel really good about our balance in our utility players.”

That could include Scott Kingery, who is in the final year of his six-year, $24 million deal, and will be in big-league camp. The Phillies might as well look. “Scotty’s a highly talented guy,” Thomson said. “He’s got a little sideways there for a little bit. Maybe we can get him back and get him going.” Will Toffey, a lefty hitter, should see time in big-league camp.

Even if the Phillies add a few more right-handed hitters on minor-league contracts, the bench solution can be resolved later in the spring when teams make cuts. The Phillies have a bullpen surplus on their 40-man roster. They can trade from there to acquire a bench bat — if they see a fit.

There are different solutions to this. One of the more obvious ones is Hall.

“He has the potential to break camp with us, depending on how everything else breaks down,” Thomson said. “He did such a great job with Harp out last year that you can’t just throw him to the side. He’s in the mix, for sure.”

Darick HallKatie Stratman / USA Today

The difference a year makes

Guthrie has earned a rare distinction: He appeared in a postseason game before ever being invited to a big-league spring training. “I think I have three at-bats in big-league games in spring training,” Guthrie said. “So, hopefully, I’ll get some more this year.” Hey laughed.

Only three? He hadn’t come over from minor-league camp as a random dude before?

“I came up as a random dude last year,” Guthrie said.

More laughter.

Guthrie, who is entering his seventh season in professional ball, actually had three Grapefruit League plate appearances in 2020. But no one remembers that spring.

Last spring, he hacked at the first pitch he saw in a Grapefruit League game. He lost his bat. It flew over the protective netting above the Phillies dugout, struck a railing and ricocheted into a field box along the third-base line.

“That’s what it’ll get remembered for,” Guthrie said.

A reporter said he did not remember that innocuous at-bat in the eighth inning of a Grapefruit League game in March.

“Well,” Guthrie said, “that’s a good thing, I guess.”

The 27-year-old infielder’s timing was fortuitous. He would have been a minor-league free agent at the end of 2022 had the Phillies not added him to the 40-man roster in September when they needed to fill a bench spot and injuries thrust Guthrie up the depth chart.

“I just kept going,” Guthrie said. “I just started trying to figure out stuff every day. I just knew if I kept playing hard, I’d get a chance somewhere. I’m glad things worked out. But I have a lot to work on. I have a long way to go. I just have to keep getting better.”

Bullpen construction and salary arbitration

The Phillies have no shortage of candidates to pitch the ninth inning, but Thomson again reiterated his plan to operate without a set closer.

“Unless somebody steps up,” he said, “and is just completely dominant.”

Thomson wants to retain the right to use his best reliever on a given night to face the most challenging part of an opponent’s lineup. That spot might arise in the eighth inning. Or the seventh inning. It worked in 2022, and the Phillies believe in their game-planning infrastructure. They identified the right matchups more often than not.

Is the idea of ​​a “floating closer” — as Thomson termed it — difficult to sell to relievers?

“It is if they’re not having success,” Thomson said. “And usually that’s because we’re putting them in the wrong spot. If you put them in the right spot and they’re having success, I think you’re good.”

Teams might be paying less for saves in free agency than ever before, but saves still matter in salary arbitration. Traditional closers have a different set of precedents in the arbitration process. It is, typically, a higher pay scale than a setup reliever.

So, it was not surprising to see a gap earlier this month between the Phillies and two of their better relievers. Seranthony Dominguez asked for $800,000 more ($2.9 million) than the Phillies offered ($2.1 million). Jose Alvarado came in at $3.7 million, $500,000 above the Phillies’ number of $3.2 million.

Neither has been a closer for a full season in the majors. But, if teams are redefining how they treat save situations, then the Major League Baseball Players Association will seek better compensation for elite high-leverage pitchers. The Phillies receive guidance from MLB‘s Labor Relations Department that influences offers.

Many teams have shifted to a “file and trial” practice under a mandate from MLB. The Phillies haven’t been as rigid in the past; they’ve settled with players in the days leading up to a hearing. That could happen again next month with Domínguez and Alvarado.

Seranthony Dominguez (Kyle Ross / USA Today)

rotation talk

The early candidate for overplayed spring storyline is how the Phillies will manage their pitchers’ workloads after a season that extended into the first week of November. There are valid reasons to monitor certain pitchers. But it will not change how the Phillies treat their best arms in camp. The starters will be stretched out like they usually would. There is a downside to being too conservative.

“Pitchers need to pitch,” Thomson said. “I would hate to break camp — and we’ve had a healthy (Aaron) Nola, a healthy (Zack) Wheeler for six weeks — and they break camp at 80 pitches. That’s not what we’re looking for. We’re going to try to get them to a full pitch count so it doesn’t take its toll on the bullpen.”

The Phillies take precise measurements during almost every side bullpen session their starting pitchers throw. They can detect inconsistencies in arm slot, spin and velocity — and even compare it to a baseline for a routine bullpen session, when the intensity is not the same as real game action. Teams are less focused on innings counts than a workload barometer.

Thomson acknowledged the club could go to a six-man rotation at times in 2023; this is something team officials have discussed all offseason. It would have been a consideration even if the Phillies had not advanced to the World Series. The six-man mechanism is a way to keep Painter in the equation for a full big-league season as he continues to adjust to the rigors of pro ball after only one full season in the minors.

Painter will be treated like every other starting pitcher in camp: He’s expected to build his innings under a normal progression.

The way the Phillies view their rotation’s workload is no different than it was a season ago. Phillies starters ranked fifth in MLB in innings pitched. (The top seven teams in rotation innings — the Astros, Guardians, mariners, PadresPhillies, Braves and Yanks — all made the postseason.)

But the Phillies had the sixth-fewest starts on regular (four days’) rest in all of baseball. They looked for every opportunity to manipulate the schedule to pad time between starts. Nola, hush, made 32 starts.

Expect the Phillies to follow the same rotation path in 2023.

(Top photo of Dalton Guthrie: David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

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