A big factor in the Philadelphia Phillies run to a World Series Championship in 2008 was their bullpen. Besides having a closer with an unblemished record when handed the ball to nail down a win, each member of the relief corps found success in a defined role.
As ardent followers, and even casual observers know, the Phillies 2009 bullpen was not quite the same well oiled machine. In fact, at times they conjured up the same type of white knuckle anxiety of a driver behind the wheel of a late model Toyota Camry in a Schuylkill Expressway rush hour.
Stated another way, neither the driver nor the passengers had a great deal of confidence that the ride was going to be smooth and uneventful at best—or smoking rubble at worst. Some days everything worked the way it was designed, but there was always troublesome lingering doubt.
If the Phillies hope to have a successful season and ultimately repeat, a well functioning, consistently effective bullpen is a must.
Although the occupants of the bullpen will look quite different in 2010, it remains to be seen whether they will more resemble last year's group or the 2008 crew?
Perhaps neither in terms of performance, but the plan for the set-up and closer roles heading into the season calls for a return to glory of the championship team.
After his well chronicled encore adventure, Brad Lidge went under the knife to correct elbow and knee problems that bothered him throughout the campaign. The team has placed a large stack of chips on the table in gambling that the off-season surgery will restore the pitcher to at least a close facsimile of the "Lights Out" version.
Set-up responsibilities will be back in the hands of tall right hander Ryan Madson and lefty J.C. Romero. In the championship season, both pitchers played instrumental roles by shutting down opponents in the late innings as the "bridge to Lidge."
Madson possesses closer stuff with a four seam fastball that often registers 95 mph and upwards, and a devastating change-up. He has turned in mixed results, though, when asked to take on the added pressure of closing out games.
Romero is working his way back from a nightmarish 2009 season that started with a 50-game suspension and followed with a couple DL stints. Like Lidge, the hope is that off-season elbow surgery will allow him to regain the slider that ate up left handed hitters.
With Ruben Amaro electing not to bring back Scott Eyre, he is betting that Romero will be able to resume the important lefty set-up man job. He is also banking on either Antonio Bastardo or Sergio Escalona to provide another left handed arm out of the pen.
Also gone from last year are middle relievers Chan Ho Park, Clay Condrey and Tyler Walker. Allowing them to walk represents somewhat of a risk, especially Park, who often showed the most poise and command of all the relievers as the season wore on.
In their place will be free agent acquisitions Danys Baez and Jose Contreras. Neither is a "sure thing" by any means, but both have had periods of success in their careers.
Baez was an all-star six seasons ago, but fell on some hard times, including a season ending injury in 2007 that kept him out of action for over a year. He turned in a middle of the road performance with the Baltimore Orioles, but Amaro hopes that he will be stronger after a full year of recovery.
Contreras has been a starter for most of his career, including a couple strong seasons several years ago. At the end of last season, he seemed to flourish in a relief role when the Colorado Rockies moved him to the bullpen. He throws hard and Charlie Manuel likes that he has a reputation for taking the ball.
After a strong 2008 season, Chad Durbin experienced a significant drop-off. He struggled with his command most of the season, so a return to form would provide a big boost in the middle innings.
Condrey and Walker were effective when asked to keep the team in the game in the middle innings. Each of them may have their best days ahead of them, but Amaro decided his dollars were better spent elsewhere, perhaps looking for a little more heat.
One wild card might be Scott Mathieson, the hard throwing rookie who is trying to rebound from a second Tommy John surgery. He has impressed the big club with his stuff in a couple major league stints and is considered to have the proverbial high ceiling if he can stay healthy.
All in all, the bullpen has the potential to be an asset once again—but also could turn out to be the team's Achilles heel. Unlike the everyday line-up and 80 percent of the starting staff, the relievers are a collection of decent odds Vegas bets—some relatively small and some high stakes.
With little Major League ready help available in the minors, or via trade with the prospect talent pool cupboard somewhat bare, the Phillies fortunes might be a matter of sink or swim with the current relief corps. Amaro and Charlie Manuel are looking to catch a nice wave in 2010— or the entire team could all be in for a cold, upstream swim.