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Looming decision on overmanned rotation could spice Phillies’ bullpen

PHILADELPHIA — Rob Thomson faces a choice in the coming days about how to handle what so far has been the strongest facet of the 2024 Phillies. If all goes well, it could reinforce a bullpen unit that was so valuable in 2023.

The Phillies have six starting pitchers at the moment. Either Spencer Turnbull or Cristopher Sanchez, both of whom have been great, will move to the bullpen soon. In doing so, the Phillies would add a new weapon: A multi-inning leverage option to augment hard throwers more comfortable working inning by inning.

Thomson deferred a decision at least until Saturday. Ranger Suarez will throw Saturday against the Giants, followed by Taijuan Walker on Sunday and Sanchez Monday. Zack Wheeler will presumably go Tuesday. With a six-man rotation looking unlikely at this stage of the season, Thomson will reallocate resources from a rotation that has logged an MLB-high 190.2 innings, leading the way in WAR (4.5) and second in ERA (2.50).

“It makes for a very, very difficult decision, as difficult a decision as I’ve had to make,” Thomson said. “But that’s a good problem to have, really.”

Either Turnbull or Sanchez could become a valuable chip for the bullpen, which the Phillies didn’t always have even last year.

Matt Strahm occupied a unique role in that unit. After starting the season in the rotation, he remained both a multi-inning option and trusted arm for tight spots. Fourteen of his relief appearances in the regular season involved him getting four or more outs.

That requires a unique skillset.

“I think it’s to be ready at any time because it’s baseball,” Strahm said. “Baseball’s going to happen, and you don’t know if it’s going to happen in the first, third or fifth. So just being ready at all times and not being so caught up in routine to be able to grab the ball and go.”

Strahm has certain uncommon attributes for that role. He’s tough on both righties and lefties. He’s aggressive in challenging batters, knowing the value of each delivery. He’s mentally prepared for the up-down experience to which so many big-armed relievers aren’t always adaptable.

He comes at the role the same way Sanchez and Turnbull did, with experience as a starter. That supplies the physical length to handle the pitch count. But the mentality is rarer.

“I think it’s poise and it’s slow heartbeat,” Thomson said. “I think Spencer has that. I think Sanchy has that. I think a lot of our guys have that. I think that’s one thing. Stuff is another, and the ability to clean up an inning, the adrenaline rush you get from runners on base, cleaning it up, and being able to sit down, get yourself under control, and then go back out there and perform again, that’s a skill to me. And a few guys can do it. Some guys can’t.”

Most of the Phillies, if history is a guide, can’t. Strahm had 14 multi-inning appearances in 2023. Jeff Hoffman had 11, the first few in mop-up roles before eight leverage looks as he grew into the season. No one else logged more than two (Seranthony Dominguez and Gregory Soto). That group still posted the third-best WAR (6.8) and seventh-best ERA (3.58) in baseball last season.

If either Turnbull or Sanchez can do the job this year, it can change how a bullpen works. Carrying six near-starters leaves the back-end short on length. But if either Turnbull or Sanchez can reliably piggyback, it could create a situation where the big arms in the pen have essentially every fifth day off.

Strahm succeeded in that role last year, and the Phillies could have another guy provide that service this year.

“You look at when we picked up Strahm last year, his effect on the entire bullpen because he can do the two, two-plus innings in high leverage,” Thomson said. “And if you’ve got a guy like that or a couple of guys like that, it just improves the entire bullpen because you can give guys extra days off when they need it.”

Source: Berkshire mont

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