26 man rosters
With rosters expanding to 26 men, a new spot is up for grabs. Teams have been moving to an eight man bullpen and shorter four position player bench in recent seasons. The LOOGY is likely gone from the game due to new reliever rules. This will open up another traditional reliever spot. While a handful may choose to carry a ninth reliever, most will lengthen the bench to five hitters. The 26th man will become one of the most important decisions this offseason.
The 26th man will be under the microscope for the Phillies, maybe more than any other team in the National League. For the 2019 season, it did not seem like any contending team struggled more with the bench and pinch hitting. Brad Miller, Phil Gosselin, and Roman Quinn aside, very few players seemed reliable. Rather, it was Nick Williams or Andrew Knapp coming up empty in high leverage situations.
Looking at the teams that made the playoffs this year in both the AL and NL, most had a strong bench. Some teams stronger than others, but all on a different level from how the Phillies ended the season. The bench will be a focus for Klentak this offseason if the Phillies are to contend in 2020.
Constructing the bench
5 players: a catcher, an infielder, and outfielder, at least two lefties, a super utility player, and a combination of these are all requirements for the MLB “pine.”
The only member of the 2019 team who is a lock for the 2020 bench is Jay Bruce. Bruce came over in a midseason trade from the Mariners and played well before succumbing to injury. In his first 33 games as a Phillie, Bruce hit 10 home runs, knocked in 29 runs, and had an OPS of .837. In the final 18 games, he hit just 2 home runs with 2 RBIs and a paltry .357 OPS. Clearly, the injury took a bite out of his game. He was rendered unplayable in the field and an out in the batter’s box. Still, there will be a spot on this roster for Bruce in 2020. The Phillies are on the hook for just $1.75 million of the 14 he is owed.
Assuming a healthy McCutchen and a combination of Herrera and Haseley in center (centerfield being a focus point for Klentak this offseason in its own right), expect Bruce to get 1-2 starts per week in left field and 3-4 pinch hit appearances. Bruce will start when McCutchen has the occasional day in centerfield or when the organization chooses to manage his load coming off ACL rehab. If he is on the bench, expect him to be the first option to pinch hit in nearly every game.
For the second spot, a player that should be considered a near-lock is Andrew Knapp. Yes, the same Andrew Knapp that slashed .219/.265/.250 in 34 PA as a pinch hitter in 2019. But on the 2020 bench, Knapp should not pinch hit during any 9 inning game. Rather, he will serve in truly the backup catcher role, where he silently thrived in 2019. As a catcher, Knapp put up a .670 OPS, and in the second half of the season, an overall .760 OPS.
Defensively, Knapp improved vastly this year. He threw out 29% of runners, allowed 3 passed balls, and graded out nearly average from a DRS perspective. Additionally, pitchers up and down the staff became more comfortable throwing to him throughout the year. The addition of Joe Girardi as the manager could be interesting for Knapp. Maybe he can unlock Knapp’s bat, or at worst, better situate Knapp to be effective for his start every week to ten days.
A third catcher
Up next, expect the Phillies to look for a veteran bat that can pinch hit while also acting as the third catcher. Deivy Grullon is young and inexperienced, and with minor league options remaining, should find himself in AAA again in 2020. In the event that Knapp struggles, the Phillies will want to have options at backup catcher. There are players to look at here in free agency, most of whom can be placed into one of three categories: defensive specialist, position-versatile, and better hitters that give up a little on defense.
Beginning with the defensive specialist, names that jump off the page are Alex Avila, Austin Romine, and Martin Maldonado. All three of these players outperformed offensively in 2019, but they will not find starting MLB jobs in 2020. Either way, do not expect the Phillies to go this route, as they will want to reserve Knapp for this profile.
There are only a few names that offer position versatility in the catching market, and calling them versatile might even be a stretch. Names in this category include the untapped Blake Swihart, a wants-to-be-versatile Francisco Cervelli (who has expressed a desire to catch less), and Russell Martin, who has logged some innings at third base.
The third category includes familiar names that find themselves looking for a new job seemingly every recent winter: Matt Wieters, Stephen Vogt, and Wellington Castillo. Expect Swihart to receive a minor league invite from the Phillies, and many other teams, but Cervelli, Wieters, or Vogt have the highest chance of finding their way onto the 26 man. Cervelli is likely the leader in the clubhouse. He has a .744 OPS the last three years, even after dealing with injuries in 2019, and played under Girardi during his time in New York.
The next spot on the bench will be filled by an outfielder. Adam Haseley has earned a spot on the roster with his play in 2019. A .266/.324/.720 line is something to build on from his rookie season to go along with his 13 DRS in just 65 games. If the Phillies do not trade or cut Odubel Herrera, Haseley will find himself in a platoon, with one of the two occupying this bench spot on a nightly basis.
If we assume for a moment that Herrera is not on the roster, the Phillies will need another outfielder. Internal options include Nick Williams and Roman Quinn. Nick Williams is no longer a fit within the organization, and also cannot play centerfield. Roman Quinn, on the other hand, recently drew the praise of Joe Girardi. Despite Roman’s electrifying speed and spectacular defense, he has never been able to stay healthy.
The organization may look towards a more durable veteran to fill the platoon/backup centerfield role. The market is lean, but two options stick out above the rest: Adam Jones and Cameron Maybin. Jones is really a corner outfielder at this point in his career. Jones is a familiar Phillies target, though, which is why he could be a possibility. If Jones is on the roster, expect him to get at bats in left field against tough lefties, with McCutchen moving to center.
Maybin is also better suited for the corners, but unlike Jones, can be considered an option to play some center field. Maybin is coming off a career year in 2019, with a .858 OPS in 82 games for the Yankees. Although both Jones and Maybin will be considered, it is likely the Phillies will give Quinn one more opportunity. If he finds himself injured or ineffective, expect the team to look for an upgrade over the summer in the trade market.
A little bit of everything
The last spot necessary to fill out the bench is a super utility player that can handle the infield. The Phillies already have Scott Kingery, who could realistically start at 2B, SS, 3B, or CF on Opening Day, but they will need one more infielder on the bench. 2019 holdovers Phil Gosselin and Sean Rodriguez should both receive minor league offers. Brad Miller added a spark on offense, but looked lost defensively and does not fit on this Phillies team. Maikel Franco’s lack of versatility will eliminate him from the conversation, and Klentak should look for a considerable upgrade regardless.
If there is a spot where the Phillies should invest some dollars on the bench, it is this one. They will look in both the free agent and trade market.
Their first target should be familiar friend Howie Kendrick. Howie’s bat has come alive in recent years, and he is perfectly suited for a part-time role. He cannot play shortstop and is below average defensively across the diamond. His offense for 1-2 starts per week and pinch hit at bats will allow Klentak and Girardi to swallow that limitation. Otherwise, the free agent market is thin here. Two other targets include Eric Sogard, who had by far the best season of his career last year, and Jose Iglesias, who has been perennially underrated.
It may be more likely that the Phillies fill this role via the trade market. Their first call should be to the Reds for another familiar face, Freddy Galvis. Galvis is above average defensively at 2B, SS, and 3B. He also shows the heart and hustle that was at times lacking for the 2019 Phillies. His .296 OBP last season does not look great, but he did slug at a career high .438 clip. A part time role could prove beneficial for Galvis and the Phillies. Other trade targets that come to mind are Addison Russell, Jurickson Profar, Brandon Drury, and Miguel Rojas.
As the bench takes shape throughout the offseason, so too will the level of the Phillies depth. The bench has been a weakness ever since the end of the last playoff run in 2011. To build a winning bench, Matt Klentak will likely have to allocate 10 – 15 million dollars to its construction. That would be a small price to pay to fix one of 2019’s biggest weaknesses and turn it into a 2020 strength.