Key for Phillies is to build a better bullpen

Posted: October 26, 2011

FIFTEEN HUNDRED. It is the number that haunts every major league general manager, that disturbs his sleep and then badgers him every morning of the long, long season. It is always there, as he replays the previous night's game in his head, as he pours a second cup and opens his laptop and plows through the reports, the nocturnal submissions that his minor league people and his scouts stayed up late to write.

Fifteen hundred. Give or take, it is the approximate number of innings a baseball team will play every year.

And somebody has to pitch them.

The last two seasons, no team has ridden its starting pitching longer and harder than the Phillies have. In 2010, they led the majors with 1,035 1/3 innings pitched by their starters. In 2011, it was an even-bigger 1,064 2/3 innings. No National League team going back to 1998 - as far back as the stats take you - leaned that heavily on its starting pitching.

This will be the issue in 2012. As we fixate on the Phillies' batting order and the approach and that stuff - as we all pretend that it is possible for 30-something-year-old players to reinvent themselves, overnight, en masse - it is important to remind ourselves that the only transformation that is both necessary and realistically feasible is this:

From a rotation-heavy approach to more of a balanced approach. That is, an approach that features the bullpen more often.

Given that Roy Oswalt, one of the Four Aces, has been discarded (at least for now), it is time to take a hard look at this issue. This is where general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. needs to change, forgetting about trying to re-sign Oswalt at a lower price, or obtaining a significant fourth starter and, instead, stocking his bullpen with a whole new slew of pretty good, midpriced guys. This is where manager Charlie Manuel needs to change, too, accepting the notion that there will be many nights when seven innings and 92 pitches from a starter with a 4-2 lead will have to be enough.

It is a philosophical question: Shouldn't Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels be enough? Assuming Joe Blanton is healthy again - a significant assumption, and maybe the biggest question of this offseason - shouldn't a combination of Blanton, Vance Worley and Kyle Kendrick be enough to pick up the rest of the starts?

And wouldn't all of them benefit from a touch less work? And wouldn't the entire operation be better served if the organizational approach to stocking the bullpen consisted of one word: more?

Bullpens in baseball are like defensemen in hockey. In the NHL, come playoff time, you want to have so many defensemen available that they are sleeping on cots in the hallway - because you never know, and you can't do without them. It is the same with bullpens. Relief pitchers defy predictability, and so the only way to approach their selection is to be ready to keep adding decent pieces until enough of them get hot at the same time. You need some financial flexibility, too, especially at the trade deadline - and if that means you can't afford Ryan Madson as your closer, so be it.

This needs to happen. You cannot count on Halladay, Lee and Hamels all pitching 200-plus innings again next season.

Only three pitchers have thrown at least 200 innings in each of the last six seasons: Dan Haren, Mark Buehrle and Halladay - and Halladay is the oldest at age 34.

Only six other pitchers have thrown at least 200 innings in five of the last six seasons: Justin Verlander, James Shields, CC Sabathia, Matt Cain, Bronson Arroyo and Cliff Lee - and of that group, only Arroyo (age 34) is older than Lee (33).

On the one hand, the excellence of Halladay and Lee is obvious - and the elite perform at higher levels for longer than the mortals. On the other hand, the calendar is as real as it is immutable - and, well, put it this way: The chances of Halladay and Lee being able to pitch 200 innings again in 2012 are lower than they were in 2011.

Hamels, who turns 28 in December, has a better chance to do it again because he is younger. But consider this: The last National League team to have the same three pitchers go 200 innings in consecutive seasons was the 1997-98 Atlanta Braves (Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Denny Neagle).

Long time, then. On the road to 1,500 innings, the Phillies need a deeper bullpen. This transition needs to take place. The starters cannot realistically continue to carry this load.

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