Phillies Closer Battle Takes Shape

Feb 20, 2016; Clearwater, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher David Hernandez (30) pitches during the workout at Bright House Field. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 20, 2016; Clearwater, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher David Hernandez (30) pitches during the workout at Bright House Field. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports /

The Philadelphia Phillies will have a new closer for the 2016 season, and that battle appears wide open.

Going back as far as 2001, the Phillies have entered spring training with a set closer on whom the club knew, or at least strongly believed, it could rely to nail down the 9th inning.

The closer role in the last 15 years has been filled by Jose Mesa (2001-03), Billy Wagner (04-05), Tom Gordon (06), Brett Myers (07), Brad Lidge (08-10), Ryan Madson (11), and Jonathan Papelbon (11-15), and then by Ken Giles following Papelbon’s trade last season.

Now with the off-season trade of Giles, the Phillies closer spot was looking wide open as the winter began. The club signed David Hernandez back on December 9th to a one-year, $3.9 million contract, and he immediately became the front-runner to fill the position.

Hernandez saved 11 games during the 2011 season with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the 30-year old has 19 career saves over parts of six seasons in Major League Baseball with the Baltimore Orioles and the Dbacks.

The entire 2014 season had been lost to Hernandez thanks to the old pitcher bugaboo of elbow surgery. He returned in June of last season to record a 4.28 ERA in 40 games over which he allowed 33 hits in 33.2 innings pitched.

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The Phils hedged their bets on that closer role. GM Matt Klentak also signed former big league closers Andrew Bailey, Ernesto Frieri, and Edward Mujica to minor league contracts with an invitation to spring training. They would fight for bullpen jobs with the Phillies, or at the very least try to impress other teams that they still had something to offer.

The best laid plans often go awry, and it is always a good idea to have a backup plan. Klentak’s signings proved prescient when Hernandez opened spring training with a – gulp – sore elbow.

“He has some issues with his elbow,” Phils’ skipper Pete Mackanin said at the time per’s Matt Breen. “I don’t know what they are. ‘Issues’ is the best way I can put it. I don’t know if it’s even serious or they’re just backing off on it.

Hernandez was able to return to the mound yesterday, pitching in a game for the first time this spring. In a minor league game, he allowed three runs on three hits while striking out two and walking one batter. It wasn’t a great result, but he came out of it healthy, and believes that he can still be ready by Opening Day to be the Phillies closer.

In an interview with CSNPhilly’s Jim Salisbury, Hernandez spoke of this latest setback: “I actually kind of felt it after we started throwing our live BPs,” he said. “I was trying to ramp it up. You get that little extra adrenaline and I kind of felt it there. I tried to push through it without saying anything and I was like, ‘I’ve got to put out the fire before it gets worse.‘”

The injury, however, created an opening for the others to excel, and at least one of them has done just that. Bailey, a local guy from Voorhees, New Jersey, has impressed. A former 2x AL All-Star and 2009 American League Rookie of the Year with the Oakland A’s, Bailey has allowed just one hit over his first four shutout innings, striking out five and walking no one.

Meanwhile, Mujica also has four shutout innings in which he has allowed just one hit, with two strikeouts and one walk. Frieri, on the other hand, has been hit around, and is clearly on his way out the door at this point. The Phillies have a number of holdover possibilities for the bullpen, and Frieri’s failures make that exit an increasing likelihood.

Over the next two and a half weeks, it is a near certainty that one of these experienced big league arms is going to win the Phillies closer job, at least to open the season. Assuming they are healthy, and in Mujica’s case that he continues to produce, the other two stand a good chance to make the team.

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