Building a bullpen: Is it just a matter of luck?


Chad Qualls. image Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Astros recently named Chad Qualls as their closer.

Phillies fans were likely confused by this news. Surely, it couldn’t be the same guy who was a train wreck for the Phillies in 2012. Maybe this was a different pitcher with the same name?

Nope, it’s the same guy. And believe it or not, he actually earned the job due to good performance, and not because all of the other Astros pitchers developed some sort of deadly stomach virus.

Is there a reason why Qualls was so awful for the Phillies, but has been successful since then? For that matter, is there a reason why just about every pitcher the Phillies have used in their bullpen since 2011 had disappointed them to some degree?

I used to suspect that part of the problem was Charlie Manuel and his sporadic deployment of his relievers. I also wondered if former pitching coach Rich Dubee was part of the problem since he seemed to have issues communicating with some of the younger relievers.

Manuel and Dubee are gone, but the bullpen remains a sore spot. And its worth noting that Manuel and Dubee were around in 2008 when the bullpen was actually a team strength.

Many fans blame it on general manager Ruben Amaro. They claim that he has no clue how to obtain a quality reliever, unlike his predecessor Pat Gillick who was an expert at finding useful pitchers.

Was Gillick that much better at acquiring quality relievers? Or was there something else to it?

To try and figure this out, I will look at the main players in the 2008 Phillies bullpen:

Brad Lidge

Brad Lidge. Image Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to 2008, Lidge had been the Astros closer. He had been inconsistent at the job, but (you might have heard about this) he was perfect in save situations for the 2008 Phillies.

How acquired: I maintain that the trade for Lidge was a bad move that happened to work out perfectly. They traded a young, cost-controlled future All-Star outfielder (Michael Bourn) for a closer who had a declining strikeout rate and was a year away from free agency. If Ruben Amaro made this trade, he would be absolutely lambasted.

Ryan Madson

There’s some revisionist history that Madson was a dominant setup man all season long, but he didn’t really seize the setup role until late August. Once he finally took charge late in the season, he was solid.

How acquired: Madson – like many successful relievers – was a former starter whose stuff played much better in short bursts.

J.C. Romero

Romero was a durable and dependable reliever who by my estimation appeared in about 95% of the Phillies games in 2008. Oddly, after he got busted for using an illegal supplement, he wasn’t quite as dependable any more.

How acquired: Romero was a journeyman reliever who the Red Sox thought so highly of that they simply released him halfway through the 2007 season.

Scott Eyre

A mid-season pickup, he became the Phillies’ specialist for facing left-handed batters. It is believed that most of his success was due to wanting to prove former manager Lou Pinella wrong.

How acquired: Another guy who was held in such esteem that he was released in the middle of the season. I remember asking a friend who is a Cubs fan if he was any good after the Phillies picked him up. His response was basically that teams that are legitimate contenders (as the Cubs were in 2008) don’t just release good left-handed relievers in the middle of the season. (On the other hand, there’s a reason why the Cubs never win the World Series)

Chad Durbin

Chad Durbin. Image Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

He was expected to fill the sixth starter/long man role out of the bullpen. Once it was clear that he could pitch multiple innings several days in a row, Charlie Manuel fell in love with him. I always felt he was a useful piece, but NEVER trust him in high leverage situations.

How acquired: Signed as a free agent after the Tigers didn’t attempt to bring him back.

Clay Condrey

Condrey was the Phillies mop up guy who would generally only pitch when one team had a sizable lead. But he typically performed well in that role. You know how in recent seasons, guys like Jeremy Horst and B.J. Rosenberg have turned close contests into blowouts? Condrey actually did the opposite and would generally keep the Phillies within striking distance.

How acquired: He had been a starter in the Phillies’ minor league system for a couple of years before being called up to the majors as a reliever in 2007.

Les Walrond

He wasn’t actually a key part of the team. In fact, until I looked at baseball reference’s 2008 Phillies page, I had no recollection of a player named Les Walrond actually playing for the Phillies.

How acquired: Signed as a free agent.

Looking at that group, it’s hard to say that there was a master strategy behind the acquisitions. They traded for a flawed closer, converted a failed starter, picked up a couple of guys off the scrap heap, and signed a few unwanted free agents. These types of acquisitions tend to be hit or miss, and yet the Phillies hit on a high percentage of them.

They haven’t had many hits since.

Perhaps in a different world, Antonio Bastardo would have turned out to be the next Ryan Madson rather than the second coming of post-2008 J.C. Romero. Maybe Brad Lincoln would have become a solid option like Eyre instead of becoming so unreliable that Ryne Sandberg was scared to put him into a game.

In that world, maybe younger pitchers like Justin De Fratus, Phillippe Aumont, and B.J. Rosenberg would be solid contributors at the major league level rather than trying to get their issues figured out in the minors.

And maybe the Phillies would have signed Chad Durbin in 2012 and Chad Qualls in 2013 instead of vice versa, and the Phillies would have gotten quality years out of the two instead of being forced to release them midway through the season.

Is there a major flaw to the way the Phillies pursue relievers as opposed to what they were doing under Gillick? Is there an issue with their development process that causes all of their young relievers to struggle at the major league level?

Or did they simply use up all their good luck in 2008?