The Philadelphia Phillies finished at the bottom of Major League Baseball in the 2015 season. Can the club possibly see significant improvement this year?
While all of Phils’ manager Pete Mackanin‘s decisions in 2016 will be a key moving forward, those he makes in regards to the bullpen are going to be incredibly important in any improvement by the team in the coming season. As we saw in 2015, having unclear roles is detrimental to players. If Mackanin can set defined bullpen roles, the pitchers should then be able to build confidence in those roles.
Continuing our “2016 Phillies Five Keys to Success” series, I am taking a look at how Mackanin’s ability to define roles, specifically with the bullpen, should positively impact the 2016 Phillies.
#4 KEY TO SUCCESS: DEFINED BULLPEN ROLES
One of my biggest complaints about Hall of Fame player/Disaster manager Ryne Sandberg was his confusing use of the bullpen. It felt as if Sandberg would walk into the clubhouse, stumble to his office, open the closet door, and spin some self-made “Wheel of Bullpen Death” to decide who was going to be the next pitcher to enter the game.
We saw him trot out pitchers such as Jeanmar Gomez and Dustin McGowan in important situations early in the season. Then, those same two pitchers would be on mop-up duty before the series was said and done.
There were nights when Jake Diekman would come into a game with a five run deficit and eat up multiple innings, only to be tossed back out there in a high leverage situation the very next night. Not only were the bullpen roles often unclear, but arms were out there being abused almost to the point of falling off on a regular basis.
I blame Sandberg for the downfall of Justin De Fratus. The right-hander was a kid whom I was extremely excited about, but his confidence was shot by no fault of his own early in the season. De Fratus was overused early on, and ended up leading the Phillies bullpen in innings pitched. It started to feel like a recurring dream, or nightmare.
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Let me paint you a picture for a moment. Sandberg stepped down at the end of June. During the three months of 2015 in which he was the manager, DeFratus pitched in 36 games, 10 in April and 13 in both May and June, for a total of 41.2 innings. His ERA over that time? An extremely poor 5.46 mark.
Over the course of the next four months, De Fratus had a more defined role as a long man. He threw 38.1 innings to an ERA of 5.76. I know it seems as though I am defeating my point, but in a closer breakdown of innings, August was his worst month. During those “Dog Days” of August, De Fratus registered a horrible 8.62 ERA, allowing 24 hits in 15.2 innings.
That August nightmare was most likely due to the number of innings he had thrown. He was extremely effective in July, registering a 3.86 ERA in 14 innings over nine games, and September when he had a 3.12 ERA in 8.2 innings over five games. Fewer innings, stronger performance.
It comes down to knowing your players, and Sandberg clearly did not. De Fratus had struggled when being used in situations where he was brought in with runners on base. He faced 160 opposition batters while being brought in with runners on base, and allowed 48 runs to cross the plate. When brought into situations with a clean inning, or no one on base, he faced 157 batters and allowed only four runs.
It is about knowing the arms you have, and what roles they best fit.
Enter Pete Mackanin.
There was noticeable and welcome change the moment Mackanin took the reigns as the interim manager after Sandberg resigned. Diekman was going to be the seventh or eight inning guy. Giles had a similar role, usually pending the matchups, until he was anointed the new closer with the trade of Jonathan Papelbon. At that point, Luis Garcia took over Giles’s previous role. The rest of the bullpen arms filled in during the low-leverage situations.
The discernible difference came with Mackanin’s willingness to use pitchers in roles in which they can best be successful. The new GM Matt Klentak has done a nice job bringing in some low-risk but experienced arms to compete with incumbents like Gomez, Garcia, and Elvis Araujo, who they already feel can contribute.
David Hernandez will have a back-end role, possibly as the new closer. He is coming off injury-plagued 2014 and 2015 seasons, but is only a few years removed from his greatest big league success. For the 2011-13 seasons, Hernandez allowed opponent batting averages of .193, .190, and .215 respectively. Along with the aforementioned three incumbents, his major league deal all but guarantees he lands a spot, which means there likely will be three spots remaining in the bullpen.
Andrew Bailey, Edward Mujica, and Ernesto Frieri are all intriguing candidates. All three have had previous big league success and were signed to minor league deals with invites to Spring Training. I expect one of the three will break camp with the Phillies. Hard to say which, but if I were pressed for a guess, I would say Frieri will win that job. He had a nice bounce-back season after traveling all over the country in 2014.
I would imagine that one of the losers in the battle for the fifth rotation spot will end up in the bullpen. In that battle we should see Brett Oberholtzer, Adam Morgan, David Buchanan, and Vincent Velasquez competing.
Other names like Mario Hollands, Hector Neris, Michael Marriott, or Dalier Hinojosa will be a part of the battle for the last man in the pen. All have had stints in the majors, but have not found a place to stick. Hollands probably won’t be ready until June after Tommy John surgery last May. Another name is Rule 5 pick Daniel Stumpf, who would have to stay on the roster all season in order to not be sent back to the Kansas City Royals.
Regardless of who the final two may be who win the last bullpen spots, one thing will be for sure moving into the season: the Phillies bullpen arms will have much more clearly defined roles in 2016 under Mackanin. And there is much more legitimate competition. With this much talent being managed properly, the bullpen is yet another key reason that we can expect some improvement from the ball club this season.