Inside the Phillies: Phillies must decide if young bullpen arms are good enough

YONG KIM / Staff Photographer Phillies relievers Justin DeFratus, left, and Phillippe Aumont
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer Phillies relievers Justin DeFratus, left, and Phillippe Aumont (could play leading roles in a bullpen that was fifth best in the NL in the second half of the season, 10th overall.)
Posted: October 15, 2012

Every day, Jonathan Papelbon made the solitary walk from the dugout around the sixth inning. The bullpen door opened and a $50 million reliever presided over an ever-changing cast. It was a group that caused consternation and, ultimately, some hope.

"For me, next year if we're not the top bullpen in Major League Baseball, we'll definitely be the top in the National League," Papelbon said after Game 162 in Washington. "That's just the way I look at it."

Why, because of those young arms?

"Yes," he said.

It's unclear whether the front office shares those sentiments. As the Phillies formulate a winter plan while the postseason marches forward without them, they will no doubt prioritize the lineup before anything else. Holes in the outfield and third base are far more important than the relief corps.

Eventually, they must decide if the progress they saw from the bullpen was enough.

The Phillies were fifth in the National League with a 3.03 ERA among relievers in the second half. It improved nearly two runs from a first-half 4.76 that was second-to-last in the league. In all, they ranked 10th in the NL and below league average.

Eleven pitchers age 26 or younger appeared from the bullpen. There were ups, downs, and everything in between. If there was one positive in the team's sputtering to an 81-81 record, it's the valuable experience the bullpen gained.

It was not designed that way. Injuries sidelined four righties - Jose Contreras, Mike Stutes, David Herndon, and Justin De Fratus - by May. During his postmortem news conference, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. listed a lack of depth there as his first regret. In other words, signing Chad Qualls was not enough. (Qualls, by the way, faced the fourth-most batters among Phillies relievers despite being traded in June.)

"It was a little tough for us to recover," Amaro said. "That was something I think that I regret a little bit."

How that failure will affect Amaro's strategy this winter remains to be seen. Like Papelbon, Amaro is enamored of the young arms in his bullpen. But the GM - along with manager Charlie Manuel - has expressed a desire for another veteran late-inning option.

That's reasonable but easier said than done. Trepidation is always required when entering the bullpen market. In the winter before the 2011 season, 17 relievers signed multiyear deals for a total of $202.6 million. Those 17 relievers - from Mariano Rivera to Bobby Jenks and D.J. Carrasco - combined for a 3.47 ERA and 2.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the last two seasons.

During that same span, the major-league average for relievers was a 3.54 ERA and 2.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Throwing big money at relievers is usually a fool's errand with investments that typically flop.

Just ask the Phillies, who paid Contreras $5.5 million for 272/3 innings. Of those 17 relievers who signed multiyear deals, 10 were either released, traded, or finished 2012 on the disabled list.

The bullpen is where the most volatile of baseball players reside. Striking gold in free agency and logic are often mutually exclusive.

There is Ryan Madson, who missed all of 2012 with Tommy John surgery and departed Philadelphia with a bitter taste. Jonathan Broxton revitalized his career, but Phillies fans are well aware of his propensity for implosions. Mike Adams is reliable, but he needs offseason surgery. Names such as Francisco Rodriguez, Brandon League, Joel Peralta, Koji Uehara, and Jason Grilli come with their own caveats.

Instead of sinking money into one proven veteran, a tactic that has so often backfired across baseball, Amaro could best spend his money by distributing it. Identify two or three relievers your scouts like and sign them in the one-year, $2 million range. Hope you hit on one or two and ride the kids for the rest of the innings needed.

The second half of 2012 proved the Phillies have pieces there. In no particular order, Phillippe Aumont, Jeremy Horst, Justin De Fratus, Josh Lindblom, Jake Diekman, and B.J. Rosenberg showed competency in spurts. Antonio Bastardo's strikeout rate was astronomical, as was his inconsistency. Stutes (shoulder surgery) should be ready by spring training.

Combine them with Papelbon and one or two other veterans and there should be a solution. Papelbon was a major-league relief regular by age 25. He spoke from experience when evaluating his bullpen mates.

"The number one thing that impressed me was the way they bounced back," Papelbon said. "When you're in the bullpen, if you don't know how to bounce back, you'll die a slow death. Every single one of those guys was able to do that."

Is that enough to trust the kids in 2013?


Contact Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com or follow @magelb on Twitter.

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