Bastardo, Stutes could make Phillies' bullpen dominant

Posted: February 16, 2012

RARE IS the occasion when a team signs a marquee free-agent closer to a 4-year, $50 million deal and enters the following season without having definitively upgraded that position.

While Jonathan Papelbon's track record is difficult to match - a 2.33 ERA, 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings, a 4.43 strikeout-per-walk ratio and 219 saves in seven big-league seasons - he is replacing a closer in Ryan Madson who outperformed him in 2011 in ERA (2.37 to 2.94) and save percentage (32 of 34 to 31 of 34).

Instead, the strength of the bullpen in 2012 will be determined largely by the performance of two young relievers who burst onto the scene 1 year ago. Lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo, 26, spent most of the season as one of the most dominant setup men in the majors, blowing just one save while pitching in 27 save/hold situations. He stranded 28 of the 32 runners he inherited and posted a 2.64 ERA while striking out 10.9 batters-per-nine innings. Bastardo was often paired with 25-year-old righty Michael Stutes, who posted a 3.63 ERA, 8.4 strikeouts-per-nine and 4.1 walks-per-nine after being called up to fill in for injured veteran Jose Contreras.

Now, the question is whether Bastardo and Stutes can avoid the late-season rough patches they experienced and put together an entire year of the type of dominance their stuff makes them capable of. Bastardo's only hiccups came in September, when he allowed nine runs with seven walks and just four strikeouts in his final eight appearances. Stutes, meanwhile, posted a 4.44 ERA in August and September as the grind of a major league season appeared to catch up with him.

Spring will be a time to monitor how effectively both young relievers built their arms back up after their first extended major league campaigns. Meanwhile, manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee will attempt to get a feel for the two new veterans joining the fold.

The most intriguing addition is 30-year-old lefty Dontrelle Willis, who finished second in the 2005 Cy Young voting as a 23-year-old starter for the Marlins. Willis has spent the last five seasons attempting to rediscover the groove he had during those early years. In 13 starts for the Reds last season, he went 1-6 with a 5.00 ERA, 6.8 strikeouts-per-nine and 4.4 walks-per-nine.

The Phillies are hopeful that Willis can reinvent himself as a lefty specialist. He has held opposing southpaws to a .200 batting average/.274 on-base percentage/.288 slugging percentage line in his career, compared with .282/.358/.430 against righties. The big question is whether he can transition from the solid routine of a starter to the always-on-call nature of the bullpen.

If Stutes, Bastardo and Willis pitch up to their capabilities, anything the Phillies get out of veteran righties Chad Qualls and Contreras will be a bonus. Qualls spent six seasons as a solid late-innings reliever for the Astros and the Diamondbacks before a horrific 2010 campaign with Arizona and Tampa Bay in which he posted a 7.32 ERA in 70 appearances. Last year, he posted a 3.51 ERA in 77 appearances for the Padres, but much of his success came in the spacious confines of Petco Park. A groundball pitcher, Qualls should at least give Manuel a veteran righty for matchups.

The biggest wild card might be Contreras, who has dominant stuff when he is healthy, but who missed most of last season after going down with an elbow injury in late April. Contreras has recovered from surgery and has begun throwing, but he also is 40 years old.

If everything breaks right, the Phillies could field the type of bullpen that gives Manuel enough confidence to keep Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels from racking up the type of innings they did last season. At worst, they will have three starters capable of regularly pitching into the seventh and eighth, and a closer who has spent the last 6 years as one of the top relievers in the game.

All in all, it isn't a bad situation.


For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese. Follow him on Twitter at

http://twitter.com/HighCheese.

 

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