Inside the Phillies: Phillies' bullpen priorities misguided

Posted: July 09, 2012

Charlie Manuel stewed after another loss gift-wrapped by the Phillies bullpen. The manager said the front office would try to make it better if it can. "We will," he said. Then he looked at a piece of paper listing his available relievers and voiced the obvious. "That's who we have to use," he said.

That was a month ago.

It was in Baltimore, and Manuel was verbalizing after a walk-off loss for the second consecutive day. Jonathan Papelbon, who signed the richest deal for a reliever in baseball history, sat unused again. Instead, two pitchers making the major-league minimum threw in a tie game.

Money is better spent on an entire bullpen and not just one closer, right?

"I'd rather see a good bullpen," Manuel said. "A well-balanced bullpen with a good closer."

This is no criticism of Papelbon. He has been everything the Phillies hoped he'd be, even after a disastrous outing in New York that provided one of the more crushing defeats in a moribund season. He has been a fine influence on the younger pitchers in the bullpen. He has saved 18 of his 20 chances. He is an all-star.

But he could be Ruben Amaro Jr.'s greatest folly.

The Phillies general manager is aggressive with his roster decisions; three years at the helm has indisputably proven that. Throwing $50 million at Papelbon was fine, so long as it did not restrict Amaro from making other essential moves.

Take one look at the Phillies bullpen at the all-star break, and it's painfully obvious it did.

Entering the weekend, Phillies relievers had a 4.84 ERA, second-worst in baseball only to the New York Mets. Every Phillies bullpen arm not named Papelbon has combined for a 5.08 ERA.

Phillies relievers have allowed 40 percent of inherited runners to score for the worst rate in the National League. It was 25 percent in 2011.

It is impossible to blame Amaro for the rash of injuries that struck his righthanded relievers. But look closer at the players he had trusted:

Jose Contreras had a 40-year-old (and maybe older) arm returning from elbow surgery. He lasted 132/3 innings this season before requiring Tommy John surgery.

Chad Qualls carried a rapidly declining strikeout rate into 2012, and while he had a 3.51 ERA in 2011 with San Diego, he benefited greatly from spacious Petco Park. He had a 2.09 ERA there and a 5.05 mark on the road.

Mike Stutes was a first-half revelation in 2011, but he tired. He posted a 4.44 ERA after Aug. 1. Then he complained of shoulder problems in spring training and later needed surgery.

David Herndon posted a 1.55 ERA in the second half of 2011, but it was mostly done in low-leverage situations, and walks were an issue. The Phillies never showed a great deal of faith in him. He, too, eventually needed Tommy John surgery.

Justin De Fratus and Phillippe Aumont are both enticing young arms. But De Fratus has battled an elbow ailment all season and Aumont has fought his own inability to find the strike zone at triple A.

Riding the younger arms was fine, as long as there was insurance. The GM was reduced to bottom-of-the-barrel shopping to fill the bullpen. He tried Dontrelle Willis as a lefthanded reliever. He has since retired. Qualls was abysmal on the mound and incendiary off it. Contreras was a health liability from Day 1.

Meanwhile, Amaro bid against himself for Papelbon. Boston never offered a contract. Miami may have eventually shown interest, but they signed Heath Bell to a deal worth half of what Papelbon attained.

"It was key to our organization and key to our club," Amaro said the day he signed Papelbon, "especially in light of where we are with our starting pitching, to make sure that we close out games in the right way."

The right way does not require a four-year contract. The five pitchers with the most saves in baseball entering the weekend are making a combined $13.82 million in 2012 and are all on one-year contracts. Papelbon is owed $11 million and three more years.

"Four years is a little uncomfortable," Amaro said when he signed Papelbon, "but on a player that's had this type of pedigree, this type of background and success, sometimes you kind of go the extra mile to do that."

What if he had spread the $11 million over three dependable arms for one-year contracts and hoped that one or two stuck? Is that riskier? The Tampa Bay Rays don't think so; they have employed that model for years. They will have a different saves leader for the eighth straight season.

Papelbon is the quintessential closer. He is passionate. He is tested.

Amaro prioritized a closer because the Phillies hadn't had a problem getting the ball to one. But the first half of a dismal 2012 was an important lesson in devaluing the position.


Contact Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com or

follow on Twitter @magelb.

 

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