In a season plagued by underachievement, inconsistency, and injuries, one controllable aspect of the Philadelphia Phillies' 2010 is the bullpen.
From the dominant bullpen that lead the Phillies to a World Series title in 2008, earning the nickname the "Bridge to Lidge," the Phillies' relief corps of 2010 took a big step back, finishing 18th in ERA despite pitching the fewest innings in the National League—with only the Seattle Mariners logging more out west in the American League.
It was no surprise to hear that the bullpen was GM Ruben Amaro Jr.'s top priority entering the off-season.
Even though he has already resigned Jose Contreras, the Phillies still have major question marks thus far. Along with left handed specialist JC Romero, Chad Durbin, middle inning work-horse, is a free agent.
The 2010 performances of rookies David Herndon and Antonio Bastardo surely didn't leave opposing hitters shaking in their cleats. Many questions and few possible answers.
With these variables in mind, many Philadelphia fans are asking the question: "How can we turn this sorry excuse for 'relief' into the once feared 'Bridge to Lidge?'"
Well, it starts with the man himself. The Phillies only have three certainties in 2011: Contreras, set-up man Ryan Madson, and closer Brad Lidge. They were the few bright spots of a weak 2010 campaign.
Free agent reliever most likely to wear red pinstripes in 2011?
Contreras was a work-horse out of the Phillies 'pen in 2010, logging innings and pitching to the tune of a 3.34 ERA. Most importantly, he was able to remain healthy for the entire season, earning himself a two year deal in free agency.
Despite missing time with a self inflicted broken toe, Madson continued his streak of dominance in the eighth inning. The only remnant of the 2008 "Bridge to Lidge," Madson was stellar in 2010, throwing 53 innings of 2.55 ERA ball.
Of course, there is no bridge without a destination. Lidge finally returned to form in 2010, gathering 27 saves and compiling a 2.96 ERA. Lidge's best work was done over the final months of the season. However, he threw 24.2 innings to a tune of an 0.76 ERA.
So assuming that these three guys can carry their success into 2011, how can the Phillies complement them this off-season?
The answer is through the free agent market. With Romero not expected to return, the Phillies' first task in rebuilding the 'pen will be to add a couple of left handed specialists. Left handers Hisanori Takahashi and Pedro Feliciano, both former Mets, seem to make the most sense.
Takahashi seems to be the best option for the Phillies. He was known best with the Mets for his flexibility in roles. He spent time in 2010 as a starting pitcher, a middle reliever, Francisco Rodriguez's set-up man, and as the team's closer, when "K-Rod" became ineligible for the last portion of the season.
The Phillies are expected to make Takahashi an offer, as the team could benefit from help in the areas of starting pitching depth and left handed relief. Takahashi was especially tough against left handed hitters in 2010, striking out more than ten left handed batters per nine innings and allowing only two earned runs from the left side of the plate—neither of which were via the homerun.
The Phillies may be able to lure him to Philadelphia by offering him the same type of deal the team offered to Chan Ho Park—an offer to compete for the fifth starter's spot and a guaranteed spot in the bullpen. While he may be the most expensive option, he may also be the most important sign.
Feliciano has been a thorn in the side of left handed Phillies since 2003, his first full time gig with the Mets. Often called on to face tough outs like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, Feliciano had become a staple in late innings of Phillies and Mets games. Signing him for that reason may be a plus in and of itself.
He would more than likely be a major upgrade to the oft-injured, oft-inconsistent, JC Romero. Feliciano lead the league in appearances for a reliever last season, logging 62 IP.
While teams may try and drive his price down, by arguing that he has a lot of strain on his arm, his agent will surely try and drive his price up, by proving that he's been the model of consistency.
Feliciano remained true to his bread and butter in 2010, as he was nearly untouchable from the left side of the plate. Left handed hitters hit only .218 against him, while he struck out over nine lefties per nine innings. His numbers against right handed hitters are awful, but any team with common sense will use him strategically in the latter innings against left handed hitters.
The Phillies have also expressed interest in bringing back Chad Durbin, though they may have been discouraged by rumors that he will seek a multi-year contract as a starting pitcher, despite not having done so since 2007. With that in mind, the Phillies may check in on other options. A couple names stand out to me: Matt Guerrier, Koji Uehara, Dan Wheeler, and Chan Ho Park.
A member of the Twins bullpen in 2010, Guerrier is an interesting case. Despite being a "type A" free agent, he wasn't offered arbitration, and it won't cost a draft pick to sign him. He posted an ERA of 3.17, but his FIP of 4.23 suggests that he was extremely lucky.
Any team that values saber-metrics realized this, and it's most likely the reason he wasn't offered arbitration by the Twins. He's not as valuable as his basic numbers appear. If the Phillies can get him at a good price, he'd be a good sign to work in the middle innings, alongside right hander Jose Contreras.
That puts Uehara in a similar ship.
The Japanese import (a lifetime starter in Japan) was stellar as the Orioles closer in 2010. He only picked up 13 saves for the O's, but, had they been a winning team, that number would have probably been tripled. He showed impeccable control in 2010, striking out 11 hitters per nine, while only walking one per nine. His ERA of 2.86 was very, very good, and even then, his FIP suggests that he was unlucky, at 2.40.
If I had to have one right handed bullpen arm, this is the guy that I would want.
The Phillies may not be his top choice, mainly because they are already committed to Madson and Lidge at the back of the bullpen, but money talks. If the Phillies can lure him to the City of Brotherly Love, he'd provide much of the same things that Hisanori Takahashi would.
Wheeler and Park round out potential right handed bullpen arms for the Phillies.
Wheeler pitched for the Rays in 2010, and he can be compared to Guerrier. Despite having a good ERA of 3.35, his FIP of 4.11 suggests that he caught some breaks in 2010. His HR/9 is a cause for concern, especially with the way the ball jumps off the bats some nights at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. As long as he's kept in the middle of the pen, he'd be a good addition.
The same could be said for Park, who would be an interesting minor league signing. The Phillies expressed interest in bringing the 17 year veteran back after the 2009 season, but he chose to sign with the World Series counterpart Yankees. He was designated for assignment after a disappointing start, and later claimed by the Pittsburgh Pirates on waivers, where he was equally unimpressive. A chance to rebuild value in a place where he was comfortable might sound appealing to him.
Despite being called a weak free agent market, the market for relievers is surprisingly deep. However, some in house options may be as appealing because of the money they'd save turning to them. Minor leaguers Scott Mathieson and Justin De Fratus will get a lot of looks in spring training.
Mathieson, 27, is one of those "feel good" baseball stories. After two successful Tommy John surgeries, the right handed fireballer came out, well, throwing fire in 2010. In 64 innings with the Phillies Triple-A affiliate Iron Pigs, Mathieson pitched to an ERA of 2.94, earning his cup of coffee with the big league club as a September call up—all the while, averaging 95 MPH on his fastball. The main concern with Mathieson has always been his health. While he's shown that he can be dominate when healthy, staying healthy has become a problem. He missed the final 21 games of the 2010 season with what was described as a "right arm injury." After already having had two Tommy John surgeries, an injury to his throwing arm will be watched very closely.
De Fratus, 23, turned some heads in the Phillies organization after splitting time with A+ Clearwater and AA Reading. Throwing a combined 65 innings, De Fratus pitched to an ERA of 1.99, his success culminating with the Phillies—adding him to the 40-man roster to protect him in the upcoming Rule 5 Draft. A surprise in 2010, De Fratus will get a lot of looks this spring, and may break camp with the major league Phillies.
Of course, a plethora of familiar names will get their looks as well.
In the second year of his deal, Danys Baez may be best described as addition by subtraction. He was largely disappointing in 2010, and hopefully, isn't guaranteed a spot because of the money he is set to make.
On the other end of the spectrum, guys like Antonio Bastardo and David Herndon are making close to nothing. Bastardo has a ton of upside, and it's clear the organization likes him. However, his change-up is underwhelming, and his fastball/slider combination lacks control.
The long reliever in 2010, Herndon remained on the Phillies roster only because they wanted to keep him in the organization. (They would have had to offer him back to the Angels if they wanted to send him to the minors, since he was a Rule 5 Draft pick.) With guys like Kyle Kendrick, Vance Worley, and Drew Carpenter expected to compete for the fifth starter's spot in spring training, Herndon may be out of a job once one of those guys loses.
If this article proves anything, it's that the Phillies have numerous options to replenish the bullpen. Be it adding talented specialists like Feliciano and Uehara, or removing contract albatrosses like Baez, the Phillies can obviously afford to rebuild the bullpen. How they do so may effect the outlook on October 2011. If teams like the '08 Phillies and '10 Giants showed us anything, it's that a talented bullpen goes a long way in competing in October.
With a couple of smart moves by Ruben Amaro Jr. and Co., the Phillies can move from troubled waters, and the Bridge to Lidge can deliver the fans of the Philadelphia Phillies to the promised land once again.