The 2008 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies—it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Last year’s success was mainly the result of the stellar bullpen. And it will be key to the Phillies' attempt to repeat in 2009.
Here, I’ll take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the bullpen, who Charlie Manuel can count on most, who has the most to prove, and why exactly the bullpen will be so vital to the team’s success.
There’s no doubt the Phillies’ strengths in the ‘pen are at the back end. Closer Brad Lidge finished last year a perfect 48-of-48 in save opportunities with a sub-two ERA.
Setup man Ryan Madson was also impressive, posting a 3.05 ERA in 76 regular season games. His post-season was even more dominant, as a slight mechanical tweak had Madson firing the ball in the high 90s.
Then there’s JC Romero, who mostly handled the seventh inning, unless the opposing team’s best lefties were to be due up in the eighth.
In that case, Romero and Madson would swap innings. Romero and his 2.35 ERA vs. lefties was a major key in shutting teams down.
The Romero-Madson-Lidge trio made Manuel pretty comfortable when leading after six innings.
Reasons for Concern
While Romero was a major strength last year, he’s also a concern this year—JC was suspended 50 games by Major League Baseball for failing a performance-enhancing drug test. That wonderful Bud Selig fiasco is for another article at another time.
The Phillies will look to Scott Eyre to hold down opposing lefties until June 1, when Romero can return. Eyre pitched very well for the Phillies down the stretch last year, but didn’t pitch in the same type of situations as Romero either.
With two spots open in the bullpen until Romero’s return, one will ideally be filled by a lefty. However, the only options within the organization are Mike Zagurski, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and JA Happ, who has had much more success as a starter.
On the bright side, Romero’s return will be like a mid-season trade—and will give the Phils a strong, fresh arm to pitch down the stretch.
Aside from the Romero situation, the only major concern is whether or not Clay Condrey and Chad Durbin can repeat their breakout performances from 2008.
Durbin’s ability to effectively pitch multiple innings in a game went a long way when Manuel needed to pinch-hit early in a game. Durbin’s 2.87 ERA was his first under 4.00 in a season where he pitched at least 10 innings.
Condrey pitched 69 innings and recorded a 3.26 ERA in his first full MLB season.
One thing about Manuel’s 2008 bullpen was that he could send out any of his relievers at any point in the game. Six relievers recorded a save last season, and five are back this season.
Obviously, the key pitchers for pressure situations are Lidge, Madson, and Romero. Madson and Romero had both proved in recent years that pressure wasn’t an issue.
Lidge however, came into last season as a major risk. Since giving up a crushing home run to Albert Pujols in the 2005 NLCS, Lidge hadn't been the same pitcher. But, last year, Lidge responded with the best season of his career.
The Phillies hope that Durbin, Condrey, and Eyre can continue to fill in for the big three effortlessly. But that would just be a bonus at this point.
A Lot to Prove
There are few in this bullpen with anything to prove—most of that was done last year.
However, the Phillies would like to see that the 2008 performances from Condrey and Durbin were not flukes.
While neither may record the low ERAs they did in 2008, they should both continue to be solid relievers with ERAs under four.
The same goes for Eyre— though if he’s forced to face right-handers, his numbers may be a little inflated.
The player with the most to prove might be Romero. While anyone with a logical brain knows that Romero’s performance was unrelated to his positive test—even chemists and other experts agree—JC is certain to be under the scrutiny of the media and obnoxious fans from unnamed locations.
In a nutshell, there’s not much for anyone to prove—that’s what 2008 was for.
Many experts agree: the team that gets its bullpen together earliest has the most success. Last year was perfect proof of this, as the Phils had their pen together pretty much from Opening Day. Aside from a few small tweaks—like adding Eyre and Rudy Seanez—the bullpen fell right into place.
The biggest key to the Phillies success in 2009 is continued excellence from their bullpen. This will be determined mostly by how they fill Romero’s role through the first third of the season.
This article, along with the rest of my articles in 2009, are dedicated to the memory of my good friend and Philadelphia Phan, Craig Anderson, who passed away on Feb. 3, 2009 from complications due to cancer. To donate to a great cause, visit www.cancer.org.