Phillies want production, not drama, from the bullpen

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jonathan Papelbon blew seven saves last season.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jonathan Papelbon blew seven saves last season.
Posted: April 01, 2014

FOR HIS final appearance of the 2014 Grapefruit League, Jonathan Papelbon climbed atop the mound at Bright House Field wearing catcher Carlos Ruiz's jersey. The veteran closer proceeded to allow a line-drive single, then retire the final three batters he faced, sending the Phillies on to the regular season while dressed like Dan Uggla.

The moment was a fitting one for the Phillies bullpen to end the spring. After spending the last two seasons as a glaring liability, the unit is one that the team believes can develop into a strength in 2014. But when you take a critical look at the sum of its parts, it is difficult to ignore the possibility that the bullpen once again could turn into a traveling circus.

First, the positives:

1) Antonio Bastardo had an excellent spring, striking out 12 without issuing a walk in 10 1/3 innings. This followed a dominant performance in the Dominican Winter League. The 28-year-old lefty was en route to his best season as a pro last year before his PED suspension (stemming from the Biogenesis affair) and has operated with a confident swagger this spring.

2) Jake Diekman walked just two batters this spring, striking out 11 in 9 1/3 innings. His numbers in his first two seasons as a pro: 77 appearances, 3.15 ERA, 10.4 K/9, 4.9 BB/9, 0.3 HR/9. Command was always Diekman's issue, but he finished last season with 24 strikeouts, four walks and no hit batters in his final 17 1/3 innings.

In Diekman and Bastardo, the Phillies have a couple of hard-throwing lefties who are capable of logging big outs to preserve slim leads in the seventh and eighth innings of tight games.

The two big questions:

1) Can the Phillies find a righthander who can complement them?

2) What about the days when Bastardo and Diekman do not pitch?

The Phillies are hoping that veteran setup man Mike Adams, currently working his way back from offseason shoulder surgery, will provide an answer to the first question. Adams is hoping for a mid-April return, but he also realizes that he is coming off shoulder surgery. In his first few competitive outings of the springs, Adams' velocity was a few ticks below where he is used to pitching. Last year, Adams' fastball averaged 90 mph. Last Tuesday night, according to the radar gun at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, he was sitting 86 to 88. Adams has the kind of movement on his fastball and cutter that can diminish the importance of velocity. Koji Uehara, Adams' one-time teammate with the Texas Rangers and last season's World Series winning closer, throws a fastball in the 87-to-89 mph range. Still, it is hard to count Adams as anything but a question mark at this point.

An even bigger issue is one that plagued the Phillies throughout last season. The situation: a 4-3 deficit in the bottom of the fifth or sixth inning, Ryne Sandberg pinch-hits for Kyle Kendrick or Roberto Hernandez. It's a situation that calls for somebody other than the closer and his two primary setup men. The Phillies spent all of last season trying to find somebody who would answer that call. They came back to win just 15.8 percent of the games they trailed after five innings. The NL average: 18.5. That's a difference of two wins. The team with the best bullpen in the NL, the Braves, won 24.2 percent of the games that they trailed after five innings. At that rate, the Phillies would have won six more games last season.

The Phillies traded for Brad Lincoln hoping he would be a guy capable of pitching multiple innings in the aforementioned scenario. He did it in the first half of 2012, when he posted a 2.73 ERA while averaging 9.1 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9 for the Pirates. But he struggled after a trade to Toronto, where last season he walked an astonishing 6.3 batters per nine innings in 22 appearances. This spring, Lincoln walked five and struck out 14 in 11 2/3 innings. He also gave up two home runs, something that has been a problem throughout his career.

One breakout candidate is Justin De Fratus, a 26-year-old righty who saw some action in big situations last season. In 58 appearances, he registered rates of 8.1 K/9, 4.8 BB/9 and 0.8 HR/9 while posting a 3.86 ERA. His biggest challenge is to cut down on walks. In seven Grapefruit League appearances, he did not walk a batter and struck out eight. But he also was sidelined for a stretch with the flu.

With De Fratus, Lincoln, Diekman, Bastardo and, potentially Adams, the Phillies have five arms with strikeout stuff in front of Papelbon. Of course, Papelbon has some questions of his own to answer. His velocity is down from where it was during his heyday, and he did not look overpowering this spring, allowing 14 baserunners in nine innings. With 2 years and $26 million and a $13 million vesting option remaining on his contract, the 33-year-old will need to offer production commensurate with those dollar figures. His peripheral numbers were solid last season, but he blew seven saves, the amount he blew in the previous two seasons combined. His 81 percent conversion rate was the highest of his career, and his swing-and-miss rate was by far the lowest of his career (16.9 percent, compared with a career average of 21.3 percent). Don't be surprised if Papelbon develops into a storyline this season. And the last thing the Phillies bullpen needs is another one of those.

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