Phillies Set Stage for a Spring-training Closer Competition

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Phillies on Tuesday announced the signing of veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit and with that set the stage for some spring-training drama.

Who will be this team’s closer in 2017?

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Benoit figures to be one of three candidates, joining Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez. Heck, you could even throw Edubray Ramos into the mix because he has the stuff to close, though his time might come further down the road when he's gained more experience.

“As we sit here today, I think we’ll probably enter spring training with a competition,” general manager Matt Klentak said of the closer role.

Phillies relievers had a 5.01 ERA last season, which ranked 28th in the majors. Klentak is trying to build a complete bullpen, not just find a closer. However, the closer role is the headline grabber in the bullpen and it’s difficult to settle upon other roles until a closer is anointed. So this will be one of the more interesting storylines in spring training.

Gomez fell into the job after others failed early last season and had a very nice five-month run. He recorded 37 saves before struggling badly down the stretch and giving way to Neris, whose fastball-splitter repertoire allowed him to strike out over 11 batters per nine innings last season. 

Neris could be the favorite coming into camp with Gomez sliding back into a seventh-inning or even multi-innings role. Ramos and lefty specialist Pat Neshek, picked up in a trade with Houston earlier this offseason, will be in the mix to pitch in the late innings and it would not be surprising to see Benoit emerge as the eighth-inning guy. Of course, this is all subject to change. There’s a lot of offseason left and it would not be a shocker to see Klentak trade one of his relievers in the right deal. But for now, Klentak believes he has an improved bullpen.

“We feel better today than we did a few days ago,” he said. “We have several players in our bullpen that can compete for the ninth-[inning job], the eighth, the seventh, the sixth. We’ve made our bullpen better.”

The Phillies are Benoit’s seventh big-league team. The 39-year-old right-hander has been one of the game’s workhorse relievers for more than a decade, recording a 3.79 ERA in 712 games in his career. He saved 25 games for Detroit in 2013 and had a 2.81 ERA in 51 games as a setup man for Seattle and Toronto last season. He struggled with the Mariners but was brilliant after a trade to Toronto in July. With the Mariners, he had a 5.18 ERA and 1.438 WHIP in 26 games. He walked 5.5 batters per nine innings and struck out 10.4 per nine. With Toronto, his control improved — he walked 3.4 per nine — and so did his ERA. He had an 0.38 ERA in 25 games with the Jays, allowing just one run in 23 2/3 innings.

“He really was two different guys,” Klentak acknowledged. “But as we drilled down into the data — strikeout rates, walk rates, batted-ball tendencies — there are some underlying things that he’s always done in his career that we think make him a pretty good candidate to have another good year. This guy has been really consistent for the better part of a decade.”

Over the last seven seasons, Benoit has posted a 0.98 WHIP. That ranks third among major-league relievers during that span behind only Kenley Jansen (0.89) and Craig Kimbrel (0.98).

Benoit will make $7.5 million in 2016. The Phillies are still a rebuilding club and they are not expected to contend in 2017. Therefore, it would not be surprising to see them turn Benoit into a prospect through a trade in July. This is contingent on Benoit pitching well, of course.

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