Inside the Phillies: Fixing the bullpen is job one for Phillies

Cole Hamels, off to a 1-6 start, needs to solve his command problems - and fast.If he does not, the season is doomed for the Phillies. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Cole Hamels, off to a 1-6 start, needs to solve his command problems - and fast.If he does not, the season is doomed for the Phillies. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 18, 2013

The scoreboard has been kind to the Phillies.

While they slip, slide and fall in their modest pursuit of reaching .500, the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals have failed to pull away.

It's hard to believe that any team could have a worse on-base percentage than the .304 the Phillies have posted through 41 games. But five teams do, and the Nationals, at .292, are one of them. The Braves, meanwhile, started 13-2 and have gone 9-16 since.

The misfortune of others will not matter if the Phillies cannot fix their myriad problems. It's easy to identify those problems: almost no offensive production from right field and center field, a bullpen with a 4.75 ERA when closer Jonathan Papelbon is removed from the equation, a badly slumping first baseman, and a scuffling staff ace.

There is nothing the Phillies can or should do about Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels. As long as they are healthy, manager Charlie Manuel must go with them. Yes, I'm aware that Howard is hitting .190 against lefties - that's 32 points higher than Chase Utley - but the Phillies are paying their first baseman a lot of money to provide power, and he's still their best source in that department.

No, Darin Ruf is not a better alternative at first base. Not against lefties, not against righties, not at all.

As for Hamels, he needs to solve his command problems - and fast. If he doesn't, the season is doomed.

Solutions can and should be sought for the Phillies' other issues.

Start with the bullpen.

"The object of the game is when you bring someone in, if you're behind or tied or even if you have the lead, is to hold the other team," Manuel said Wednesday after his bullpen turned a 5-3 deficit into a blowout loss. "Can you do it all the time? No, but you have to do it at a high percentage."

Phillies relievers do not. They have allowed 27 of 48 inherited runners to score, a 46 percent ratio that was the worst in the National League entering play Thursday and tied with the Los Angeles Angels for the worst in baseball.

The dire situation has become even more of a concern with setup man Mike Adams battling a sore back that required an injection Tuesday. The Phillies have two veteran relievers - Chad Durbin and Raul Valdes - with earned run averages north of 7 and a young lefty, Jeremy Horst, with a 5.29 ERA.

Phillippe Aumont's 2.25 ERA looks good, but he has walked at least one batter in nine of his 14 appearances. Antonio Bastardo had an outstanding April, but he has walked six batters in 32/3 innings this month.

Flipping a coin might be as effective as checking the matchups when Manuel is ready to make a pitching change.

Unlike the situations with Howard and Hamels, the Phillies do not have to stick with their bullpen arms, whether they have experience or not.

"You have to stay with them a while and give them a chance, but then I think like [former Dodgers manager] Walter Alston and those chances run thin sometimes," Manuel said. "Eventually the rope runs out."

Michael Stutes, after a rough April at triple-A Lehigh Valley, has not surrendered a run in his last seven appearances, allowing just five hits, striking out 10 and walking just two in that span.

Given his 2011 success, it's time for Stutes to get another look at the big-league level. Likewise, it would not hurt to give Justin De Fratus a more important role, especially with Adams hurting. And it could be time for former first-round pick Joe Savery to get another look, especially since lefties are hitting just .200 against him.

As for the two major offensive issues not related to Howard - center field and right field - it's too soon to entirely pull the plug on Ben Revere and Delmon Young. If the problems persist a month from now, however, it will be time to address them.

Ruf, if he continues to hit and field the way he has in the minors most of this month, could be a corner outfield solution that would require a move to right field by Domonic Brown.

In center, Manuel said earlier this week that he's considering playing Freddy Galvis out there. There's no doubt he can play the position. He can play any position. I'm willing to bet he'd be a better pitcher than Wilson Valdez.

That's not the ideal situation or the long-term solution, but the time could come when it's a better alternative than Revere and John Mayberry Jr.

Changes need to be made because the Phillies cannot continue to rely on happy scoreboard results if they want to remain in contention.


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com. Follow @brookob on Twitter.

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