By Sam Bush

In 2021 an NL East pitcher threw close to 100 innings, logged an ERA near 1.00, and received Cy Young votes for his pitching prowess.

Elsewhere in the division, a pitcher threw over 100 innings, logged an ERA near 1.00, and remains relatively obscure.

That first pitcher was Mets superstar Jacob deGrom.

The second pitcher was lefty Ranger Suárez, and he may be the key to the Phillies’ offseason.

Coming into the season, Suárez was even more obscure than he is coming out of it.

An international signing out of Venezuela in 2012, the left-handed Suárez climbed the ranks of the Phillies farm system to little fanfare.

And, if MLB ever plays a season in 2022, Suarez is only due $575,000 salary.

Plus, he doesn’t reach unrestricted free agency until 2026.

While the Phillies are currently $29 million under the current CBA’s luxury-tax threshold, it’s unlikely that they’ll devote a sum greater than the $10 million it took to sign right-hander Corey Knebel to further improve the bullpen.

More modest bullpen additions aren’t off the table, as free agent lefty Andrew Chafin and neutral-splits right-hander Colin McHugh are speculative fits that can probably be had for a lower annual amount than Knebel. Regardless of target, however, no free agent addition will prove as cost-effective as shifting the pre-arbitration Suárez to the back of the bullpen.

The versatility afforded by Suárez should not stop the Phillies from reinforcing their rotation depth and bullpen, but it does lessen the need to sink major resources into both. This flexibility will allow the Phillies to turn the bulk of their attention to the position player side of things, an area for the team that hasn’t looked this bare in quite a few offseasons. Half of the lineup is set, but vacancies and question marks are abound in the other half, as left field, center field, third base, and shortstop are set to be filled with players short on Major League success or players coming off down 2020 seasons.

After reaching the Major Leagues as a 22-year-old in 2018, and in two ensuing stints in 2019 and an illness-interrupted 2020, Suárez did little to distinguish himself from the pack. Through 67 innings across those first three looks, the Phillies pitcher sported a 4.66 ERA that ERA estimators largely validated. The only standout skill in that modest sample was an ability to generate ground balls, as opposing hitters smacked pitches into the dirt 52.7% of the time when facing the young Philly.

In May of this past season, Suarez was called up from Triple-A Lehigh for what is likely the final time in his career, as he joined the bullpen to back up a top-heavy Philadelphia rotation. Pitching in mostly multi-inning appearances, Suarez didn’t yield an earned run until his twelfth appearance of the season. This roll continued, even if Suarez proved fallible and put up a 2.25 ERA in the next 20 innings until the trade deadline. This dominant run through July convinced the Phillies to promote the lefty into their rotation, replacing Spencer Howard, the starter Suarez regularly mopped up innings for, after a trade with the Texas Rangers.

As a starter, Suarez rode his hot streak to the end of the season, pitching to a 1.51 ERA in 65 plus innings, and securing Philadelphia’s 82nd win of the season. All told, the breakout left-hander pitched to a 1.36 ERA in 106 innings. A 2.72 FIP and 3.51 SIERA portend some regression, but above average command and strikeout abilities, plus a whopping 58.2% ground ball rate, indicate that there was more than just luck at play in that final ERA. Additionally, Suárez was one of the best in the league at inducing soft contact per Statcast, whose metrics are even more bullish than those FIP or SIERA figures.

It’s rare for a season of this caliber to fly so under the radar come awards season, though Phillies advocates were likely a bit busy banging the Cy Young drum in favor of ace Zack Wheeler. For historical context though, a case could be made that the dual-role pitching Suarez was worthy of some down-ballot attention, if nothing else. After all, previous pure relievers Eric GagneRollie Fingers, and former-Philly closer Steve Bedrosian all won the league’s top pitching award with comparable, and arguably inferior campaigns in the past. Award-winner Bryce Harper, who took home NL MVP honors in 2021, stumped for his teammate to win the NL Comeback Player of the Year award that ultimately went to Buster Posey.

All of that’s to say, for as unheralded as he was, Ranger Suarez was very good in 2021. Per Fangraphs’ RosterResource page, the left-handed pitcher is expected to slot into a rotation behind Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, while Texas acquisitions Kyle Gibson and Hans Crouse round out the group. Rotation mainstay Zach Eflin, who flashed breakout potential the past two seasons before illness and knee troubles derailed his most recent campaign, should return early next season if he recovers as expected from September knee surgery.

Each member of that pitching squad carries some combination of health risk and questions about what they can reasonably produce in 2022: Wheeler pitched a career-high number of innings in 2021 after a shortened 2020 campaign; Nola sported an uncharacteristically high 4.63 ERA last season; Gibson’s bottom-line numbers nosedived following his trade to Philadelphia; Crouse has 270 professional innings to his name thanks to injuries, only 7 of which have come at the Major League level; Suárez is unlikely to post another ERA close to 1.00; and Eflin will be returning from surgery.

One could look at these risks and determine that the Phillies need more depth, should anyone in this group fail to shoulder the bulk of a baseball season’s workload. A rosier stance however, is that the Phillies have one of the best rotations they’ve had in some time. Instead of relying on Vince Velasquez and a post-prime Jake Arrieta, or Matt Moore and Chase Anderson as they did this past year to fill a rotation, the Phillies front office may be looking to add that type of player entirely as depth. That is of course, unless President Dave Dombrowski and GM Sam Fuld see another opportunity for improvement.

One creative tactic aimed towards improvement may be for the Phillies to shift Suarez back to the bullpen, at least once Eflin returns or more rotation depth is acquired. As surprising as that move would be on the surface, it would allow Suarez to continue in a dual-role that he’s already proved exceptional. Further, it would bolster a bullpen that finished near the back of the pack in most categories and tied for first in blown saves with 34. It would also equip manager Joe Girardi with a shutdown lefty out of the pen, as Suarez was the toughest pitcher for lefties to hit in 2021. This is in contrast to the bullpen’s current top left-hander, José Alvarado, who walked 47 batters in 55 plus innings last season.