A Major League bullpen is like a box of chocolates… you… well… I’m not even gonna finish that thought because if I did, I’d have to smack myself in the face with my shoe. But you get where I’m going with this.
Bullpens are the most fickle part of any franchise. Every year, players who were shut-down stoppers the year before all of a sudden can’t get anybody out. Guys who had been thrown onto the scrap heap of the league sign with someone and turn into Rollie Fingers. And every year, someone from the minor leagues comes up and performs above and beyond the call of duty.
And while every bullpen in Major League Baseball still ridiculously chases the “save,” including the Phillies, the trend seems to be that most General Managers are done investing big money into relief pitchers.
This offseason, Ruben Amaro went about constructing his bullpen in a very interesting way. He made his first priority signing a closer, locking up Jonathan Papelbon to a ridiculous four-year, $50 million contract with a vesting option for a fifth year. And while no one knows exactly what Ryan Madson would have signed for, it seems obvious that signing any closer to a contract that large has a greater risk of blowing up in their face than it does looking good at the end of it.
Amaro also rolled the dice on a few veterans that may or may not pan out. Chad Qualls and Dontrelle Willis were both brought in, and the Phils still have Jose Contreras under contract. Youngsters Mike Stutes, David Herndon and Antonio Bastardo were tremendous surprises last year coming up from AAA and, while Bastardo is a lock to make the team, Stutes and/or Herndon may start the season in LeHigh Valley. And then there are the surplus of strong, young arms in the minors. Guys like Phillippe Aumont, Justin De Fratus, Joe Savery, Michael Schwimmer, Jake Diekman are cheap, young pitchers that could provide tremendous value to the organization both this year, and in the future.
So, with that said, let’s take a look at the best case/worst case scenarios for the Phils bullpen in 2012.
Best Case Scenario: The mega-deal man, who by the way thinks Phillies fans are the Alex Trebeks of the baseball world, sure knows how to pander. Luckily, Phillies fans LOVE being pandered to! The best case scenario for Paps is that he just continues doing what he has done during the course of his career; wiggle out of jams and rack up those saves. Last year, Papelbon had a 2.94 ERA with 12.2 K/9 innings and 31 saves for Boston. Those numbers would sure look good for the Phils in ’12, and they could be even better now that he’s out of the grindhouse that is the American League East.
Worst Case Scenario: Injury. You always worry about bullpen guys and injury. Luckily for the Phils, Papelbon has been tremendously durable during his career, making 59 or more appearances every year since 2006. However, as we saw with Brad Lidge in 2009, a closer can lose his mojo in an instant, which of course would make that $50 million contract look even worse.
Best Case Scenario: Through September 2nd last year, Bastardo compiled a 1.35 ERA, held opponents to a .411 OPS and struck out 66 batters in 53.1 innings.
Worst Case Scenario: From September 3rd through the end of the year, Bastardo compiled a 17.36 ERA, opponents had an OPS of 1.352, and gave up 9 earned runs in just 4.2 innings. It’s really just that simple.
Best Case Scenario: Amazing, shockingly, and inconceivably, Kyle Kendrick is the second-highest paid member of the Phillies bullpen this year. Not only that, Amaro felt like he HAD to guarantee Kendrick a contract for 2013 as well, for reasons passing understanding. Kendrick, for what he does, is effective. He’s a solid swing man, 6th starter, long arm out of the ‘pen. Last year was his best as a professional, posting a 3.22 ERA and a career-low WHIP of 1.221. Kendrick still can’t make anyone swing and miss (only 4.6 K/9) but his hits per nine innings dropped to a career-low 8.6, and the Phils brass seems to think he’s improving. I don’t think we can ask for much more than he provided in 2011 as the best case scenario for 2012.
Worst Case Scenario: People still aren’t swinging and missing at Kendrick’s stuff, but last year, fewer of those balls put into play ended up going for hits. Last year, Kendrick’s BAbip was .265. For his career, it’s .290, which is almost league-average. The worry is that Kendrick got very lucky last year, and that a return to the norm means an ERA north of 4.
Best Case Scenario: Contreras missed almost all of 2011 with arm problems, and he still isn’t 100% in training camp. Reports on him have been good however, and there is optimism he will be ready to go when the team breaks camp at the end of the month. When he’s healthy and throwing well, he’s a very effective reliever, as he showed in 2010 with a 3.34 ERA and 9.1 K/9. A healthy Big Truck in the 8th inning means a lot of “holds” for Paps in the 9th.
Worst Case Scenario: Contreras can’t get over his arm troubles this spring and either spends most of the season trying to get back or misses big chunks of it altogether. Luckily, there are other arms in place should that happen, and it’s probably more than likely he’ll miss at least some time in 2012. He is, after all, 72 years old.
Best Case Scenario: The Phils were clearly concerned enough about Contreras’ health to go out and sign the veteran right-hander to a one-year, $1.15 million contract just before training camp. The Phils have long had a crush on Qualls, and while his overall numbers last year looked OK (3.51 ERA in 77 games), his K/9 continue a two-year trend of a steep plummet. In 2010, he averaged 7.5 K/9, while last year that dipped to 5.2. The hope is Qualls can keep the ball down and provide a veteran presence in the later innings, should Contreras not be healthy enough to pitch this season.
Worst Case Scenario: Qualls was a product of pitching at spacious Petco Park, and has traditionally been horrible in Citizens Bank Park. He has a career 2.45 ERA at Petco and an 11.12 ERA at the Bank, giving up 7 HRs in just 11.1 innings in Philadelphia. He has not looked good in Clearwater either, although of course, it’s still early. Still, it’s easier to see the worst case scenario as the more likely one, given his history and performance so far this spring.
Best Case Scenario: Dontrelle’s quirky delivery has always made him difficult for left-handed hitters, and the hope is that he’ll convert and be an effective LOOGY out of the ‘pen. Last year, lefties had an OPS of just .369 against him, although it was limited to just 60 plate appearances. Still, this is a move that Pat Gillick would have been proud of; a low-risk, high-reward deal if it pans out.
Worst Case Scenario: Well, the D-Train has basically played out the worst case scenario through a week and a half of Grapefruit League action. He’s struggled against both lefties and righties, and is now feeling some soreness in his bicep. He’s not guaranteed a Major League deal, so there’s a real possibility the Phils could cut him loose if he doesn’t prove to be effective this spring. Not only that, there are a couple left-handed youngsters down on the farm who may be ready to fill that void.
Best Case Scenario: Like Bastardo, it was a tale of two seasons for Stutes. He started off the season with a tremendous spring training, yet began the year in LeHigh Valley. It wasn’t long until he was with the big club, however, and he started with a flourish. Through July 8th, he had a 2.45 ERA, held opponents to a .550 OPS and struck out just over one batter per inning. A full season of THAT Michael Stutes would be all the Phils could ask for in 2012.
Worst Case Scenario: From July 9th through the end of the season, the worm turned. While he did have a couple good performances mixed in, his ERA jumped significantly during that time (4.68). Opponents had an OPS of .771 against him, and his strikeouts were down slightly as well. The hope is that the drop-off was the result of fatigue and not the league catching up to him.
Joe Savery/Jake Diekman
Best Case Scenario: Savery is probably closer to the Majors than Diekman, although the side-winding lefty has captured the fascination of pitching coach Rich Dubee. Should Willis falter and the Phils decide they need another lefty out of the ‘pen, Savery could be the first guy given the chance to fill that void. Remember, he performed very well in the final series of the year against Atlanta last year at Turner Field. He is an intriguing prospect, and a guy you absolutely have to root for.
Worst Case Scenario: Both guys get hit around in Spring Training and start off poorly in AAA, putting their development behind, leaving the Phillies with few options for lefty relievers.
Phillippe Aumont/Justin De Fratus/Michael Scwhimmer
Best Case Scenario: This trio of young arms should allow the Phillies to devote much of their monetary resources to other ares starting in 2013. Aumont probably has the best chance to make the team out of spring training, as he’s shown a devastating curveball that he can throw for strikes and also throw out of the zone for guys to chase. He’s also had his fastball sitting around 96 mph all spring. The chance gets better with each passing performance that Aumont makes the big club and is in Philly on Opening Day.
Worst Case Scenario: De Fratus’ elbow soreness lingers and he falls way behind, hurting his development in 2012. Schwimmer, who had an up-and-down month with the Phils last September, deserves a chance to face Major League hitters on a regular basis, but with Qualls, Contreras and Aumont all ahead of him, it’s hard to see him logging many innings in the ‘pen this year, unless there are a string of injuries. Still the future is bright for all three guys.
OK, just one more category to go before we wrap all this up. Next week, we look at the brand new bench Amaro has put together, and how they’ll be expected to help in light of Ryan Howard’s set-back and Chase Utley’s questionable health.