Team expects more from its relief corps

Posted: April 02, 2007

The Phillies entered the off-season concerned about their bullpen.

They enter the 2007 season still concerned.

"I would say it's a work in progress," Phillies general manager Pat Gillick said. "It's an area we identified a long time ago. We identified it as an area that we wanted to improve upon. We haven't been able to bring anybody in from the outside at this point that's going to improve the bullpen. We would hope somebody from the group we have here would step forward and be one of the people or two that could make us stronger in the bullpen."

The bullpen is a worry for a couple reasons:

1) Closer Tom Gordon's durability.

2) The relative inexperience behind him.

The Phillies open the year with righthander Ryan Madson their setup man. Behind him are righthanders Geoff Geary and Antonio Alfonseca. Madson had a very good spring. Geary was limited because of a hamstring injury. And so far the best thing the Phillies can say about Alfonseca is that his arm appears sound.

Righthander Jon Lieber could provide a boost, but he's hurt.

Matt Smith is the only lefthander in the bullpen, and he has just 202/3 innings in the majors. Righthander Clay Condrey joins the pen. The Phillies have just 11 pitchers on their roster but could add another today.

There are plenty of question marks there, especially compared with other bullpens in the National League East.

A good bullpen is critical. Phillies fans certainly remember how Tim Worrell and Terry Adams torpedoed the Phillies all by themselves in the first few weeks of 2005.

If Worrell had done anything those first few weeks, the Phillies would have made the postseason.

Here's a look at the other bullpens in the NL East:

New York. The Mets' bullpen could be tough, but they took a significant hit with Guillermo Mota's drug suspension and the fact that Duaner Sanchez is out until August. Sanchez needs a second operation on his right shoulder, this one to insert a screw after he was diagnosed with a fractured bone.

But lefthander Billy Wagner (3-2, 2.24 ERA, 40 saves) is the closer, which makes life easier for everybody in New York. Righthander Aaron Heilman (4-5, 3.62 ERA) and lefthander Scott Schoeneweis (4-2, 4.88 ERA with Toronto and Cincinnati) are Wagner's primary setup men. The Mets signed Schoenenweis, a Lenape High graduate, to a three-year, $10.8 million contract. He's there to get out Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.

The bullpen also will include lefthanded specialist Pedro Feliciano (7-2, 2.09 ERA), rookie righthanded sidearmer Joe Smith, and righthanded long reliever Aaron Sele (8-6, 4.53 ERA with the Los Angeles Dodgers). Righthander Chan Ho Park (7-7, 4.81 ERA with San Diego) has been asked to move to the pen.

Atlanta. The Braves could have the best bullpen in the NL East, and that could be a huge difference-maker in a three-team race. It will also be a far cry from last season when the pen blew a ridiculous 29 saves, most in the National League.

Righthander Bob Wickman (0-2, 1.04 ERA and 18 saves) will be the closer. He converted 18 of 19 saves for the Braves when they acquired him from Cleveland for the second half last season. The Braves traded for lefthander Mike Gonzalez (2.17 ERA, 24 saves for Pittsburgh) and righthander Rafael Soriano (2.25 ERA for Seattle). They join righthanders Chad Paronto (2-3, 3.18 ERA), Oscar Villarreal (9-1, 3.61 ERA), Tyler Yates (2-5, 3.96 ERA) and lefthander Macay McBride (4-1, 3.65 ERA).

"If we have those guys last year, we're in the postseason," manager Bobby Cox said.

Florida. The Marlins solved a headache last week when they traded for Diamondbacks righthander Jorge Julio, who has 99 career saves with the Baltimore Orioles, the Mets and the Diamondbacks. Julio (2-4, 4.23 ERA and 16 saves with the Mets and Diamondbacks) immediately became the team's closer.

Righthanders Kevin Gregg (3-4, 4.14 ERA with the Los Angeles Angels) and Randy Messenger (2-7, 5.67 ERA) and lefthander Taylor Tankersley (2-1, 2.85 ERA) join Julio. A host of less-experienced arms will fill out the relief corps.

Washington. The Nationals should be taken to the woodshed often this season, but their bullpen could be tough - if that's any consolation. Chad Cordero (7-4, 3.19 ERA and 29 saves) is the closer, but could be trade bait come July. Righthanders John Rauch (4-5, 3.35 ERA and two saves) and Ryan Wagner (3-3, 4.70 ERA) are Cordero's primary setup men.

Which bullpen will wind up as the one to watch remains to be seen.

"I think Atlanta has improved their pitching in the back end more than anyone," Gillick said. "They've done a nice job. They had some problems last year, but with Gonzalez, Wickman and Soriano, they've addressed that."

It could make all the difference in the world.


Contact staff writer Todd Zolecki at 215-854-4874 or tzolecki@phillynews.com.

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