The 2008 Phillies season carried tempered expectations on the heels of a historic division comeback, subsequently followed by a three game throttling at the hands of the eventual NL champion Colorado Rockies.
Even lower however, were the expectations for the Phillies bullpen, one that had routinely blown crucial games in the 2007 season.
In an effort to rebuild that bullpen, Pat Gillick abused former Phillies GM Ed Wade in a deal that landed the Phils the ego-battered Brad Lidge and utility infielder Eric Bruntlett, in exchange for disappointing speedster, Michael Bourn, relief pitcher Geoff Geary, and 3B prospect Mike Costanzo.
Lidge’s stock was at an all-time low after suspicions mounted that a monstrous Albert Pujols homerun in the fifth game of the 2005 NLCS fatally damaged his confidence.
Gillick also bought in Chad Durbin, formerly of the Detroit Tigers, to fill a potential role as a long reliever and spot starter. The 2008 bullpen wound up as the best in the NL, sporting a sparkling 3.19 ERA.
Brad Lidge’s return to prominence came in the form of perfection. The previously erratic Ryan Madson became unhittable in the post season; and nearly every situational reliever, from Scott Eyre to J.C. Romero filled their roles perfectly.
This year the Phillies return many of the same faces from that world champion bullpen. Lidge once again will anchor the back end, with “The Bridge to Lidge,” Ryan Madson looking to solidify himself as the premier setup man in the league. Scott Eyre, Chad Durbin, and Clay Condrey will also return.
After that however, the outlook is foggy. J.C. Romero will be unavailable for the first 50 games of the new season as he serves his suspension for his use of a banned substance. That leaves two vacancies to be filled. The one clear option is to keep the newly acquired Chan Ho Park in the bullpen.
Last year, Park flourished in the Dodger bullpen, compiling a 3.40 ERA in 54 appearances.
Park can serve as an additional long reliever to supplant Durbin who is coming off a career year in which he posted a 2.87 ERA. A return back to earth seems likely for Durbin, as his effectiveness wavered late in the season.
Park’s presence in the bullpen would alleviate some of the pressure from Durbin and allow younger, more promising pitchers such as J.A. Happ, Kyle Kendrick, and Carlos Carrasco a shot at the final spot in the rotation.
That leaves the one final bullpen position to be filled. Romero’s suspension leaves the Phils with Scott Eyre as the only left-handed arm out of the 'pen. Assuming the team does not relegate Happ to the ‘pen, it is possible the team will look elsewhere to fill Romero’s role until he returns.
Several sources have the Phillies interested in Joe Beimel, Randy Flores, and Will Ohman. While all are serviceable options, the financial commitment necessary to attract one of these arms is most likely out of the Phils range.
So unless the price tag on one of these left handed relievers significantly drops, the Phillies may be forced to promote from within. The only other LHPs on their active roster is Mike Zagurski, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery and is unlikely to be ready for opening day, and relative unknown Sergio Escalona.
The final spot in the ‘pen is likely to remain fuzzy until the end of spring training. If the Phillies are to repeat as baseball’s best in 2009, it will be even more so because of a strong bullpen.
Last year’s bullpen was likely aided by a starting pitching staff that logged more than 950 total innings last year allowing for limited use of the relievers. The combination of starters lasting deep into games and the heavy utilization of several key bullpen personnel raises several red flags for this upcoming season.
Will Brad Lidge’s sheer dominance persist? Will Ryan Madson continue his ascension to one of the league’s top relief arms? Can Scott Eyre hold down J.C. Romero’s role until he returns in June?
Will the starting pitching dazzle once again, putting minimal focus on the bullpen? These answers remain to be seen, but should make for an interesting 2009 season.