Another Look at the Bullpen

With the first Spring Training game on Saturday, it’s time to take a serious look at the Phillies bullpen. 11 names are listed on the depth chart, and unless a non-roster invitee really impresses the club, six or seven men on this list will likely make up the Opening Day bullpen:

Keep in mind that this list does not include swing-man Kyle Kendrick. Kendrick is currently slotted as the #4 starter. While the odds are that he will stay there unless he struggles and someone else steps up in a big way (someone like Jonathan Pettibone), stranger things have happened. If John Lannan pitches well and the Phillies end up with an extra starter, Kendrick could be put back into the spot-starter/long relief spot where he was decently productive last year. Such a situation would potentially knock another one of the guys above down to the minors.

General Impressions

Obviously, if Papelbon and Adams are healthy, they’re in, as the 8th/9th inning guys. That leaves space for four or five other guys. Experience can play a big role in who gets the spots at the beginning of the year, but there are only a few relief pitchers in the system with much experience. That said, Bastardo and Durbin – the two others who have the most experience – will most likely make the team. If they do, the club has space for two or three other pitchers.

A Closer Look

Before simply laying out a prediction, one needs to consider many factors. Here are some notes on each of the men not making more than $2 million a year:

Antonio Bastardo

Bastardo’s 2011 season was fantastic, as he took over the 8th inning position and even closed out in 9 save situations (converting 8 of those opportunities). After seeing some major league action in 2009 and 2010, he had a 0.93 WHIP and sub-3.00 ERA in 2011 and was one of Philly’s most dependable arms. 2012 brought some regression, however. His ERA jumped by more than one and a half runs; his WHIP, nearly 30 points.

This year the Phillies will presumably not need to ask Bastardo to pitch the eighth inning incredibly often. Instead, the team may ask him to be a lefty specialist. His career splits against lefties are noticeably better, so it would make a lot of sense. After inking a $1.4 million contract, they certainly hope he can settle in and put up numbers closer to those of two years ago.

Chad Durbin

Durbin is following what was one of his best seasons. The 35-year old had an ERA a tad over 3 for the Braves – worse than only his 2008 season with the Phillies – and and 1.31 WHIP, matching his previous best. If Durbin can continue to pitch the way he did last year, he will be a gladly welcomed part of a three-man veteran presence in a bullpen with several young arms.

Jeremy Horst

It would definitely be nice for the Phillies to have more than one southpaw in the ‘pen. Horst pitched well in AAA last year, but pitched even better in the majors. He pitched 31.1 innings for the Phils in his second major league stint with a 1.15 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. If he has a decent spring, he will likely stay with the club to start the season.

Phillippe Aumont

Aumont, one of the pieces of the 2009 Cliff Lee deal, made his major league debut last year. He didn’t blow the opposition away, but he did hold his ground in limited action. Aumont picked up a couple saves near the end of the season. His command is the biggest concern, but he has the stuff to be effective. Whether or not he makes the team likely depends on what kind of a spring he has.

Justin De Fratus

De Fratus spent a lot of time on the DL last year with a strained right flexor pronator tendon (read “forearm strain”). In limited time in the bigs over the past two years, he pitched with a 3.07 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. It’s a small sample size, but those are the kinds of numbers teams love. If he’s healthy and looking strong, he could definitely make the club, but there are many moving pieces here.

Michael Stutes

Stutes also went on the DL last season, but had year-ending arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder in June after being sidelined in late April. The shoulder had been an issue in Spring Training, and it showed up again. Stutes could have some of the success he had in 2011 if he’s healthy. Stutes threw live batting practice on Tuesday, but that’s not enough to get a good idea of where he’s at. Obviously, with the number of possibilities the Phillies have, Stutes needs to have a good spring to crack the roster.

Jake Diekman

Diekman has some good stuff, and definitely has potential. The last time he had an ERA over 4 – at any level, including 32 games in the majors last year – was 2009, and that was 4.04. As a lefty, he’s definitely an asset. The one area of concern is his high WHIP. In the majors, one can only go so long without batters taking advantage of the men on base. In 27.1 innings, Diekman walked 20 and allowed 25 hits. He may need some fine-tuning in AAA, where he excelled last year. If he’s put in the work, though, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him make the roster, though that may depend on how Horst does.

B.J. Rosenberg

Looking at Rosenberg’s numbers, it seems a classic case of the player in-between levels. Rosenberg blew away minor league batters, going 5-2 with a 1.89 ERA over 62 minor league innings, mostly with the AAA IronPigs. He started six games, but mostly pitched in a reliever role in the midst of a few call-ups. He had his moments, but struggled overall with the Phillies, posting a 6.12 ERA. His minor league numbers indicate he could have some success with the club, but it hasn’t shown yet. Rosenberg may need some time to retool in the minors, but he may get a shot again soon.

Raul Valdes

Valdes is another lefty, which makes four on this list – some teams would be envious to have as many southpaw possibilities. However, I haven’t been overly impressed with Valdes. He’s bounced around – the Phillies are the fifth MLB system he’s been through, and he spent some time in the independent leagues. Valdes seems like a backup plan in case other lefties Horst and Diekman don’t pan out. There may be a hidden gem here, but at 35 years old, he may have to be impressive to stick.

How It Looks

Here is one possible Opening Day bullpen:


It wouldn’t be surprising to see a full 7-man bullpen. In that case, this list is one spot short. If the team goes with a righty, it could be De Fratus or Stutes, depending on who returns stronger from injury. If he’s strong and the team wants another lefty, Diekman could take the last spot. If all those on the list make the club, the team would have a closer, a setup man, a long reliever, two lefties, and one situational righty. That list may call for another right-hander.

Too much pitching is a good problem to have; however, a lot of this talent is young pitching. This young pitching core certainly has potential, but potential only amounts to as much. With three available spots in the bullpen, the Phillies need some of their young pitchers to mature and take charge.


Nationals: All In

The Washington Nationals are all in.

Today they agreed to sign Rafael Soriano to a two-year deal (three links).
What would make a team with a duo of competent closing options (Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard) acquire a closer who’s tied to draft pick compensation?

Well, if they’re looking for those last few pieces to make the World Series.

Earlier this offseason, the Nationals acquired Denard Span from the Twins, essentially giving them four start-able outfielders. There was speculation as to whether the Nationals would trade Mike Morse or move him to first if Adam LaRoche left.

When they resigned LaRoche, it put Morse in limbo; however, don’t be too surprised if they keep him.
Morse would be fantastic insurance for an injury to one of the outfielders (Jayson Werth has been injured a few times) or LaRoche. He could also play first when the Nats are facing a lefty.

For these reasons, the Nationals would be best advised to only trade Morse for the right deal. They need to be impressed by the offer before trading Morse. The 30-year old is only a year removed from 31 home runs, and is a right-handed power bat – a rare commodity in the current market.

Edit: The Nationals did end up trading Morse in a three-team deal for three prospects including A.J. Cole, whom they sent to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez deal last year.

Without Span or Soriano, the Nationals won the NL East – and 98 games in the regular season – in 2012. But almost any team that wins its division after years of underachievement is looking for more.

Though the team is short a dependable left-handed reliever, it has a solid rotation, eight seven proven position players, and now three pitchers capable of closing. This looks like a team trying to go somewhere now.

Having said all that, the 2013 Nationals remind me of a few recent teams that made postseason runs:

1. The 2003 Marlins

The Marlins went all in and won the World Series, similar to their 1997 team.
They relied a lot on homegrown talent, and after the victory, they couldn’t afford to hold onto their players. They went into all-sell mode to rebuild again.

This doesn’t seem a fair comparison because the Nationals’ success has been on the other side of rebuilding a new stadium (2008 opening). Additionally, the Nationals have more money to spend than the Marlins ever have.
Take the front end of the 2003 Marlins team – the talent coming together at the right time – and you’ve captured the main part of the similarities.

2. The 2007-2011 Phillies

Through the later part of the ‘aughts, the Phillies built their team around a core of players like Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard. The team continued to get better overall and they built their talent up to a 102-win season in 2011. Ironically, though, they only managed to capture the trophy on the front end of this stretch in 2008, because they were the hottest team at the end of the year.

This is more of a fair comparison. The Nationals are accruing talent like these Phillies teams did, also accruing a larger fanbase and more revenue, also on the other side of a new stadium (Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004).

Depending on how some of the younger players develop, though, the Nationals could be a staying power for a number of years – unlike the Phillies, whose core were already in their prime. For just a few examples, Stephen Strasburg is 24 and Bryce Harper is only 20. If the Nats play it right and have some of these players during their prime years of production, they could be well worth their money.

The youth and talent of the 2013 Nationals plays very much into their favor. The race for the NL East will be a fight – a fight the Nationals look to be a part of for years to come.

Adams and the ‘Pen

In 2011, the Phillies had a great setup man in Antonio Bastardo, but didn’t have a viable closer.
This year, they had heavily-touted Jonathan Papelbon, but due to Bastardo’s struggles and the club’s inability to find a good long-term solution, they didn’t have a consistent 8th inning guy.

The final-innings formula could finally be locked up.

With the two year, $12 million contract for Mike Adams (three years, $18 million including the vesting option), the Phillies appear to have found the solution to this year’s eighth-inning woes.

The Phillies have tried to trade for him before, and many fans have clamored for someone of his caliber. Now, when there are very few alternative options, the club has found a way to lock him up.

Adams’ diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome (a rib bone presses against a nerve, leading to pain as well as numbness in the arm) and the resultant surgery this October may have been a deterrent to other interested teams.
The surgery, which includes removing a rib to relieve pressure, was reportedly successful, and the expectation is for Adams to be ready for Spring Training.

As somewhat of an aside on this type of surgery, PubMed Health (link above) notes that surgery can be expected to be successful in 50% to 80% of patients, and about 5% of patients have recurring symptoms after surgery. This will be something to watch for.

Where does this put the bullpen? Obviously, Papelbon and Adams are in. After that, it could be a free-for-all, but here’s the rest of the depth chart as listed on the Phillies’ site:

  • Antonio Bastardo
  • Phillippe Aumont
  • Jeremy Horst
  • Justin De Fratus
  • Raul Valdes
  • Michael Stutes
  • B.J. Rosenberg
  • Jake Diekman

With the addition of John Lannan, the Phillies will have 5 starters. By my estimate, having those seven pitchers should leave five remaining spots in the ‘pen. At least three of those guys will not start the year in the majors.
We’re waiting on a few things here – to name a few, how Stutes comes back after recovering from shoulder surgery and if Bastardo can settle in and be the lefty specialist the Phils likely want him to be.

At this point, the Opening Day bullpen is anyone’s guess. We’ll have to wait for Spring Training to iron out some of these questions.