Building a competitive roster requires a lot of things from a major league club. Often it requires that the team spend a substantial amount of money, make smart trades, and draft well. But it also requires a decent bit of good luck when it comes to minor transactions. Ask a fan of the 2019 Yankees how they think the team might have fared without Mike Tauchman, Gio Urshela, and Cameron Maybin — three players acquired after the 2018 All-Star break for virtually nothing. There is, of course, skill involved in knowing which players to target in those low-risk moves and which tweaks to make to turn them from fringe 25-man players into legitimate starters. But there is a certain degree of guesswork, educated or not, involved in every step of that process. The odds of one of these small-scale pickups evolving into much of anything are always low, which is why teams make lots of them every winter.
The Philadelphia Phillies have already tried spending money and making smart trades. Last winter, they signed two starting outfielders and traded for a starting shortstop, a starting catcher, and a bullpen anchor. The math of their offseason worked out in theory — the players they lost amassed 5.3 WAR in 2018, and the players they picked up were worth 19.2 WAR. That windfall of talent boosted their record all the way from 80-82 to… 81-81. They’ve continued to be aggressive this winter, signing right-hander Zack Wheeler to the offseason’s fourth-largest free agent contract and adding the top shortstop on the market, Didi Gregorius, on a one-year deal. This week, however, they tried something else — looking to get lucky. They reached into the bucket of free agents and grabbed a handful of players in their mid-30s, who were once solid major leaguers but were struggling to find work. On Tuesday they signed Bud Norris and Drew Storen. On Wednesday, they added Francisco Liriano and Neil Walker. All four were signed to minor league deals.
Walker, 34, was probably the most successful of that group in 2019. He hit .261/.344/.395 in Miami, with eight homers, a 99 wRC+, and 0.4 WAR. It was his second straight season compiling less than 1 WAR after seven straight 2-WAR-or-better campaigns. Part of that is the result of his declining defensive abilities — after struggling at second base while in New York, the Marlins used him mostly at first, where he remained below average. The bat, however, could still work off the bench. His already-middling power has fallen off the past couple seasons, but his stellar walk rates (11% in 2019) and line drive capabilities still combined to make him a near-league-average hitter last year. Philadelphia is limited in its infield options off the bench, with only Josh Harrison projected by RosterResource to make the team as an extra in that area. As the season unfolds, it’s not difficult to see how Walker could play a valuable role, especially as a switch-hitter.
Aside from Walker, this spate of moves is one Philadelphia surely hopes will add some needed bullpen depth. The Phillies’ pen was 16th in the majors in ERA and 23rd in FIP and WAR in 2019, with just 10 relievers finishing above replacement level. Five of those, including Juan Nicasio and Nick Vincent, became free agents at the end of the season, creating even more holes in an already-weak group.
There are several decent options here. Neris, Alvarez, and Suarez are a solid foundation, and returns to form from Domínguez and Vìctor Arano after their respective elbow injuries would help a great deal. But banking on a real dominant season from any of these arms is probably ill-advised, which made Philadelphia seem like a reasonable landing spot for one or more of the top relievers on the market this winter. But one by one, pitchers like Will Smith, Drew Pomeranz, Will Harris, and Dellin Betances all got snatched up. Any outside relief help from this point forward would likely come in the form of pitchers whose skills line up more closely to what the team already has in house.
Liriano fits that description. At 36, he’s coming off his 14th season in the big leagues but his first as a full-time reliever. In a return to Pittsburgh, where he pitched three and a half seasons from 2013-16, he managed to turn back the clock a bit from the bullpen. He recovered from a brief velocity dip the year before, even throwing the second-hardest slider of his career. He also struck out his highest percentage of batters since 2016 and got his highest chase and whiff rates since 2015. Most impressive, however, was the quality of contact he allowed.
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You might inclined to think that Liriano’s numbers improved in the pen thanks to more advantageous platoon situations, but that wasn’t the case. Just under 29% of the total batters he faced last year were left-handed, a substantial increase from the 16.7% rate he faced them as a starter in 2018, but still not at a level where we would consider him a lefty specialist. And looking at his splits as a reliever, it isn’t clear he should be. He limited lefties to a .295 wOBA in 2019, but he also kept righties at a .312 wOBA.
Liriano owes a lot of his success to his offspeed stuff. His fastballs get pummeled, likely due to the fact that he tends to leave his sinkers elevated instead of keeping them down around the knees. His high walk rates over the last few years tell us that’s probably a command issue, and one that isn’t likely to be easily fixed. But he still does a nice job of locating his slider and changeup in the low outside corners of the zone. Liriano made the slider his main pitch against lefties in 2018 and has stuck to that plan, for good reason. Left-handed hitters ran just a .191 wOBA against his slider last season with a .171 xwOBA. Once in the bullpen, Liriano then made the changeup his go-to offering against right-handers, upping its usage in that platoon by more than 50% from the previous season. That also turned out to be a success, with righties finishing with a .273 wOBA against it and a .268 xwOBA.
Of the pitchers Philadelphia signed this week, Liriano is the one most likely to contribute in a major way to the big league club this season. Part of that is because he’s shown he can still be useful as a bullpen option, with his propensity for getting soft contact doing some work to balance his issues with handing out free bases. Part of that is also the fact that the other two pitchers are coming off at least one season in which they have not thrown a pitch.
The last time we saw Norris was in 2018, when he served as the Cardinals’ closer. He pitched just fine that season — his FIP- was right at 100, his ERA- was 92, and he had the highest K-BB% of his career at 18.8%. But like many players, he was disappointed by the offers he found waiting for him in free agency.
He joined Toronto in spring training, but upon being told they’d like to start him in the minors, he asked to be released. He ended up sitting out the entire season. It doesn’t seem especially likely the Phillies will view him as more big-league ready after a year away than any other team did when he was coming off a normal offseason last spring, so we’ll see whether Norris will be more willing to ride Triple-A buses this time around.
Now 34, Norris showed some stuff to like the last time he pitched. Though he doesn’t possess the elite velocity of most pitchers throwing in the back of bullpens, he does have elite spin on his fastball, ranking in the 95th percentile in that category in 2018. Like Liriano, he’s spent most of his career as a starter, with 2017 representing the first year of his career in which he made fewer than 10 starts. With that transition came changes to his repertoire — he went from mainly a four-seam/slider guy to using cutters and sinkers as his main offerings, with the four-seamers and sliders taking a backseat. For the most part, the change worked. After running a career K/9 of 8.3, he raised that figure to 10.6 in 2017-18 while maintaining near-identical walk and homer rates.
Because of the progress he made as a reliever, it’s odd that MLB teams were so concerned about his readiness coming out of spring. His velocity was down in spring games last year, but that seemed to be thought of as more a result of his late signing than an actual red flag. One would assume he won’t be throwing 95 mph darts in his first game this time around either, so time will tell if he’s once again asked to accept a Triple-A assignment, and whether he’ll be more willing to take it.
Storen, meanwhile, is almost certain to need some time in the minors before getting a shot on an MLB mound. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2017 when he was in Cincinnati. He got out to a solid start that season, owning a 2.72 ERA through July 14, but got hit hard the rest of the way, allowing a 7.85 ERA and five homers over his final 20 appearances. That meltdown was explained somewhat when it was announced that he needed Tommy John surgery. He sat out all of 2018, and last year, made a brief comeback attempt with Kansas City that consisted of just 10.1 Double-A innings.
Storen, 32, recently threw at Driveline’s Pro Day, where he was observed by a few of my colleagues. During his performance, his fastball velocity was 88-91 mph, which is roughly in line with where it was in 2017 before his surgery. He did have a little less spin on his fastball, but a little more on his slider. He’s far removed from his days anchoring the back of Washington’s bullpen, but Eric Longenhagen did tell me that he was impressed with Storen’s command at the Driveline showcase, and that if he’s able to locate his secondary pitches, he can provide some depth in the Phillies’ organization.
Because of the constant presence of their division rivals, it’s been easy for the Phillies go get overshadowed of late. The Braves, one of the most active players of the offseason, signed a new starting outfielder. The Mets unsurprisingly found a way to somehow turn another team’s scandal into an example of their own oafishness. Even the Marlins’ owner was just announced as a near-unanimous Hall of Fame inductee. In the background of all of this, Philadelphia quietly signed four well-known major league veterans in a span of two days. They weren’t major attention-grabbing moves, but this team has already made those, and depth targets can turn out to be something better than anyone expects. All it takes is a bit of luck.
Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.