Who will be Phillies' closer? Rob Thomson discusses
Who will close for the Phillies? Rob Thomson discusses originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
The Phillies began the offseason with the hard-throwing, righty-lefty duo of Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Alvarado at the back end of their bullpen and added another pair fitting the description in Craig Kimbrel and Gregory Soto.
Phillies manager Rob Thomson will have multiple options at his disposal to close on any given night, and from the sounds of it, he again won't anoint a closer.
"I kind of like the floating closer, if you will," Thomson said Wednesday in the Phils' clubhouse. "It just gives us a few more options."
Eleven different Phillies relievers had a save last season. Dominguez, Corey Knebel, David Robertson and Brad Hand had at least a handful. Dominguez was clearly their top reliever by season's end, but in the playoffs, the Phillies had five saves and each came from a different pitcher: Zach Eflin, Alvarado, Dominguez, Ranger Suarez and Robertson.
Most teams still do name a closer, but bullpen management has changed substantially over the last two decades to the point that managers routinely recognize and feel comfortable using their best reliever for outs prior to the final three. Sometimes the highest-leverage situation is in the seventh or eighth. Sometimes it's Ronald Acuña Jr., Austin Riley and Matt Olson due up in the eighth with Eddie Rosario, Marcell Ozuna and Vaughn Grissom hitting in the ninth. Which trio do you want your best reliever facing?
"If you anoint a closer, sometimes that guy ends up pitching the ninth inning and it's really a spot someone else can take advantage of, and that guy might take a spot where it's not the best area to pitch," Thomson said.
It shouldn't affect most of the Phillies' key relievers. Dominguez, Alvarado and Soto have all spent time as setup men in addition to closing. The Phils' first bullpen signing of the offseason, Matt Strahm, isn't a closer.
Kimbrel is a different story. He has 394 career saves and might be headed to the Hall of Fame someday. The only two brief periods he was used as a setup man (2019 and 2021), he struggled. He had a 0.49 ERA in 39 appearances as the Cubs' closer in 2021, was traded to the White Sox to set up for Liam Hendriks and had a 5.09 ERA the rest of the way. In the shortened 2020 season, he posted a 5.28 ERA as the Cubs mostly used Jeremy Jeffress to close.
The Phillies signed Kimbrel to a one-year deal worth $10 million, the same contract they gave Knebel last season. Knebel began the season as the Phillies' closer but was removed from the role in mid-June after blowing four saves in the span of 11 opportunities. He was eventually lost for the season to an arm injury but still led the team with 12 saves.
It seems more likely this season that the Phillies have several players with 8 to 10 saves than one guy with 35.
"Unless somebody steps up and is completely dominant," Thomson said. "You're gonna have to give guys days off so having that depth in the bullpen is really big. I think it worked pretty well last year with the way we did it."
Does it make it more difficult to get your relievers to buy in, particularly if they're entering a new situation like Kimbrel and Soto?
"It does if they're not having success, and usually that's because we've put them in the wrong spot," Thomson said. "If you put them in the right spot and they have success, I think they're good."
Whoever ends up closing, this has a chance to be a very good Phillies bullpen given the velocity, overall stuff and experience. Kimbrel, Soto and Alvarado have all had trouble throwing strikes at various points throughout their careers and their collective control will go a long way in determining the success of the bullpen and the 2023 Phillies as a whole.