David Murphy: General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. must find Phillies bullpen help

Posted: June 27, 2012

THE UPSIDE to all of this — the blown leads, the late-inning meltdowns, the suffocating level of frustration in the clubhouse — can be found in a moment like the one that occurred in the eighth inning on Monday night. Rookie lefthander Jake Diekman had just thrown six straight fastballs that missed the zone, the first four resulting in his 10th walk of the season, the next two prompting a restless murmuring from the crowd at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies held a five-run lead that would have seemed comfortable if not for their recent track record in eighth and ninth innings. Catcher Carlos Ruiz focused on the 25-year-old kid on the mound, urging him to relax and concentrate on the next pitch.

That pitch, Diekman's seventh of the night, was a strike, which was followed by a foul, which was followed by a 93-mph fastball that prompted a doubleplay ground ball to shortstop.

"I try to talk to the young guys," Ruiz said later. "I tell them to relax. One pitch at a time. Sometimes, I think, they try too hard. Tonight was a big example?…?I hope he knows he can do it that way."

There is a chance that the reliever who will eventually establish himself as the Phillies go-to setup man is not Diekman or Antonio Bastardo or Chad Qualls or any of the various combinations Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee have played in their ongoing attempt to stabilize the back of their bullpen. Before Monday night's game, which resulted in an 8-3 win over the Pirates that moved the Phillies to 35-40, Manuel sat in the home dugout and acknowledged that the organization is scouring the majors for a few good arms.

The addition of a veteran shutdown reliever is not contingent on the looming decision to buy or to sell at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. It is a necessity not just for 2012, but for next season and beyond, when the only reliable option in the fold is a $50 million closer who has watched at least five potential save opportunities disappear in front of him. Two of the players the Phillies had hoped to count on, Michael Stutes and David Herndon, will be recovering from surgeries. A third, the lefty Bastardo, has spent most of the season as an enigma, at times pitching like the dominant setup man of a year ago, at others looking incapable of handling the grind of a regular role at the back end of tight games. Justin De Fratus is still working his way back from an elbow injury that has sidelined him since spring training. Fellow prospect Phillippe Aumont has had a disappointing season at Triple A.

"Our conversations always lead back to the fact that we definitely want to beef up our bullpen," Manuel said, a few hours before the Phillies kicked off a four-game series against a surprising Pirates team that entered the night in playoff position. "And when you say beef up, we need a couple of pitchers who can really stabilize our bullpen."

Improving a bullpen is not as easy as Angels general manager Jerry DiPoto made it seem on May 3, when he dealt a couple of minor leaguers to the Padres for 26-year-old righthander Ernesto Frieri, who has since pitched 22 scoreless innings while helping LA improve from 10-16 to 40-33. But it is a fix that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. needs to find.

The Phillies entered the week having lost six games in which they carried a lead into the eighth inning. They lost five such games all of last season. Six games is the difference between second place and last place in the division, between the thick and the fringe of the wild-card race.

The irony of Amaro's quest to add a second ring to his collection is that he has often seemed to forget the blueprint that led to the first, which used a deep and versatile bullpen as its foundation. That foundation needs to return for success in any of the upcoming seasons, which is why the Phillies' 2012 shopping list should start with a strikeout arm who is under contract through at least next year.

In the meantime, we have moments like the one between Diekman and Ruiz, which Manuel and Dubee can only hope will bear dividends in the not-so-distant future. We saw the Cardinals endure similar struggles with their bullpen last season, but we also saw them use the resulting uncertainty to groom the players who would later star in their World Series run. Fewer than half of the 64 batters Diekman has faced have managed to put a ball into play. That total includes 10 walks and two hit batsmen, but also 21 strikeouts. Since his second appearance, when he allowed four runs in two-thirds of an inning, Diekman has surrendered just three runs and two extra-base hits in 12 innings, striking out 18 and walking eight while stranding eight of his 12 inherited runners.

"We've got guys with a lot of potential, but along with command comes location, and they are still learning how to do that," Manuel said. "And that can take a while."

The games will not get shorter, nor the season longer, which is why they must search. As they do, the development of Diekman is a subplot to monitor.  

Contact David Murphy at dmurphy@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read his blog at www.philly.com/HighCheese.

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