Is there any hope for the Philadelphia Phillies bullpen?


Mike Adams. Image Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As a whole, the Phillies’ relievers have not performed well this season. There have been brief stretches of competent pitching, but for the most part, it’s been a frightening experience every time the bullpen doors open. At times, it has even been historically bad like when B.J. Rosenberg faced three batters and allowed three home runs.

Does this mean that the team is destined to suffer a loss – or at the very least, induce nausea – every time the starter can’t pitch a complete game? Not necessarily. There are a few reasons why fans can hold out hope that things will get better.

There won’t be as many close games

The Phillies have played a lot of close games this season. (Or at least, they were close until the late innings when the bullpen helped make them not-so-close.) As a result, there have been a lot of high leverage innings for the relievers. If you put a reliever into enough tight situations, he’s going to eventually struggle in some of them.

It’s nice to have the occasional blowout, which theoretically provides the key relievers a chance to take the day off. (Hopefully, the majority of the blowouts will go the Phillies’ way rather than what happened Friday night in Colorado.) I’m assuming that as the season progresses, we’ll get a smaller percentage of close games.

Ryne Sandberg should improve

Even if there are fewer close games, it won’t matter much if the manager doesn’t handle his staff well.

Charlie Manuel had many strengths as a manager, but handling relief pitchers was not one of them. The Phillies have had several young relievers struggle over the past couple of seasons, and I think part of that was due to poor usage by Manuel.

Unfortunately, thus far into his career, Ryne Sandberg hasn’t been much better. He doesn’t seem to have a great handle as to when to best use each guy on his staff, and it seems that he’s been way to quick to rely on a small handful of guys, even when the score isn’t that close.

As I’ve said before, if Sandberg doesn’t trust guys (and he clearly didn’t trust either Brad Lincoln or Justin De Fratus), then there’s no point to having them on the team.

I’ll cut him some slack, as it’s still his first year on the job. Hopefully as he gains experience and more familiarity with his staff that his bullpen management will become more adept.

Mike Adams will return

Maybe it isn’t the manager. Maybe the problem is that he simply doesn’t have enough reliable relievers. Now that Mike Adams has returned from the disabled list, the hope is that Sandberg has one more good option to call upon.

It may be foolish to think that Adams will come back resembling the dominant setup guy he was before signing with the Phillies. But at this point, it looks like he’s their best hope to provide some late inning stability.

If Adams can lock down the eighth inning like the Phillies had originally envisioned, then the rest of the pitchers can settle into more appropriate roles. Antonio Bastardo should be able to handle the seventh inning, while Jake Diekman can be used almost exclusively against lefties.

In that scenario, B.J. Rosenberg is a middle reliever whose rubber arm is an asset, rather than an overmatched late inning guy. Similarly, Mario Hollands won’t be called into high pressure situations, and Jeff Manship will presumably be fine as the long man.

Cole Hamels will return

Cole Hamels is the best hope for the bullpen. Image Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the best development for the bullpen is the impending return of the ace starter.

Over the past four seasons, Hamels has averaged 6.6 innings per start, which is almost a full inning over the major league average. That means, in a typical Hamels start, the bullpen only needs to worry about seven outs. Compare that to the 5.5 innings that his replacement Jonathan Pettibone has averaged over his career. Basically, when Pettibone starts instead of Hamels, the bullpen is forced to work an extra inning.

It seems that the Phillies can’t depend on Kyle Kendrick or Roberto Hernandez to regularly give them more than six innings in a start. That makes it more imperative that the top three starters pitch deep into games. Having Cliff Lee throw a complete game, followed by seven innings from A.J. Burnett was a good sign. If Hamels can return and go at least seven innings in most of his starts, then there is a lot less pressure on the bullpen.

So yes, despite what we’ve witnessed so far this season, Phillies fans can be reasonably optimistic about the bullpen.

Of course, there was one name I didn’t mention in all of this. The hope is that the recent improvement by closer Jonathan Papelbon is for real, and he can adequately perform as the closer. Because if he can’t, there isn’t an obvious replacement, and the Phillies may be destined to watch many late leads turn into heartbreaking losses.