Phillies draw strength from young bullpen arms

OTTO GREULE JR / Getty Images
OTTO GREULE JR / Getty Images
Posted: June 21, 2011

SEATTLE - It was an innocuous comment from the manager, but even as the words spilled out of his mouth, Charlie Manuel could boast a prideful smile.

"If you stop and think about it, we've got four guys in the back of our bullpen," Manuel said Friday. "If you give us five innings, we can cut the game for you just using those guys an inning at a time."

No, this is not a revelation that occurred overnight. But in the list of accomplishments through 73 games in 2011, discovering the promise of Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes must rank near the top. Their progress, along with that of 25-year-old David Herndon, was why J.C. Romero could be jettisoned last week. Their development creates hope for the bounty of young righthanded relief arms now pitching in triple-A Lehigh Valley. And with an ever-expanding payroll and plenty of offseason issues looming, it raises the opportunity for a new bullpen order - inexpensive and youthful.

The importance is so obvious, people around the Phillies, who open a three-game series Tuesday night in St. Louis, now wonder, "Where would we be without Bastardo and Stutes?"

A day after Manuel's comment in the visiting dugout at Safeco Field, his plan was put to test. Vance Worley threw 96 pitches in five innings and the Phillies required 12 outs from their bullpen in a tight game. First came Stutes, the 24-year-old righthander of whom one Phillies official recently said, "He looks like he wants to fight you every time he's on the mound." Stutes retired the first four batters he saw, but walked two of the next three - proof that the maturation process remains just that, a process.

But the 25-year-old Bastardo was called upon to escape the situation and did so on three pitches, the last one a devastating 85 m.p.h. slider at which Adam Kennedy unsuccessfully flailed. Bastardo pitched the eighth, too, and retired the side in order. The bridge to Ryan Madson was navigated.

Stutes has allowed only 12 hits in 21 2/3 innings with 22 strikeouts for a 2.08 ERA. (His 13 walks are troublesome.) Herndon, who the Phillies made a point of keeping around all season to preserve his Rule 5 status, has pitched 12 straight scoreless innings.

Bastardo has some of the most impressive numbers among all major-league relievers. His 1.00 ERA and .121 batting average against are second-best in the majors. Opponents have swung and missed at 16 percent of Bastardo's pitches, the sixth-highest rate in the majors.

"He's been good, man," Manuel said. "He's been good all year. He's learned a lot in the last two years. He does a tremendous job."

Both Bastardo and Stutes have contributed far more than three pitchers - Brad Lidge, Danys Baez and Romero - who will earn a total of $15.6 million this season. And perhaps this will be an important lesson learned in the Phillies front office, where plenty of decisions await this winter.

An extension for Cole Hamels is due, a new leftfielder is needed, and a decision on shortstop will be forced - all on a payroll that already has $107 million committed to nine players in 2012.

The bullpen is an area in which the Phillies could be frugal. Some of the better bullpens have recently been built that way. San Diego has the majors' best bullpen ERA for the last two seasons and is paying its top five relievers a total of $13.5 million in 2011. Atlanta's relievers have a 2.59 ERA, and the top five bullpen arms earn $8.4 million.

Jose Contreras is the only Phillies reliever owed guaranteed money ($2.5 million) in 2012. Madson is a free agent and could command top dollar with Scott Boras representing him.

The Phillies could decide they need to pay for a veteran closer - there should be plenty available - but the majority of the bullpen could be young. Last week, in a string of minor-league transactions, Justin De Fratus and Phillippe Aumont were promoted to triple A. De Fratus, 23, has a 2.48 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings. Aumont, 22, has a 2.18 ERA with 45 strikeouts in 33 innings. Michael Schwimer, 25, has been dominant at Lehigh Valley all season with a 2.01 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings.

The strength at the top of the Phillies' minor-league system is bullpen arms. It has taken but half a season for Bastardo and Stutes to demonstrate how valuable they can be for a contending team.

Contact staff writer Matt Gelb

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