Feb 292012
Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon

Jonathan Papelbon takes over as Phillies closer

If there is a place on the Phillies where they are loaded with Major League ready young players this is it. There are more arms than there are slots. Enough so that the Phillies could field two complete bullpens at the big league level if they so chose to. Last year Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, Danys Baez, JC Romero, and Jose Contreras were supposed to form an elite group and take most of the innings with young Antonio Bastardo being the second lefty. At season’s end Romero and Baez were released, Lidge and Madson had both missed time on the DL and Contreras was shut down early with an arm injury.

Michael Stutes and Bastardo stepped up and assumed major parts of the work load and David Herndon, long a goat in the eyes of many fans, also turned his game around and chipped in some quality innings. Madson after coming off of the DL really took a huge step forward and became the lock down closer some of us knew he could be, even if he himself had not believed it before last year.

The bullpen this year has a bit of a different look. Madson and Lidge both left as free agents and took the last vestiges of the 2008 World Series pen with them. Madson’s leaving left a bit of a sour taste in his mouth as he thought his agent had a deal with the Phillies to return, only to have it blow up and the Phillies seek a replacement in Jonathan Papelbon. Madson eventually had to lower his price substantially and sign a deal with the Reds that is team friendly and much less than the deal he thought he had with the Phillies. Lidge is trying to catch on with the Washington Nationals, a team which thinks it has a “rivalry” with the Phillies.

Replacing Madson and signed to a very big and long contract by Ruben Amaro is new closer Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon has been one of the most dependable closers in the tough AL East with the Red Sox but his last game with the Sox will go down as one of the worst moments of his career as he blew a save in spectacular fashion to a Dan Johnson home run which lead to the Red Sox totally missing the playoffs and major changes on the their team. That blown save really overshadows just how good a year Papelbon really had with a 0.93 WHIP and a BAA of .209, 87 K’s and 10 walks in 64.1 innings.

The reason the Phillies gave for replacing Madson was that they wanted a more established and experience closer in the end of the bullpen and while they might be full of blueberry muffins in what their reasons really are, there is no lie in the fact that Papelbon has much more experience in the job. Having a top notch closer in the pen may make the Phillies starters breathe a bit easier. Then again Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee probably wouldn’t care if the closer is Wayne Gomes since they both want to pitch nine innings every start.

Jose Contreras’ arm injury still has question marks surrounding the Big Truck as to when he will actually be back in the pen. Word varies from Opening day to a few weeks in April to May or June at the earliest. He is throwing off the mound and for the most part appears to be throwing well. If he is healthy he could be a huge boost to the pen as he was very effective as a closer/set up man last year before he got hurt. 5 for 5 in saves and a .220 BAA are very respectable as in the 13 K’s in 14 innings the only drawback to his season besides the injury was his 8 walks given up. Control has plagued Contreras in the past at times but as a reliever he has been able to pitch through it.

Antonio Bastardo has gone from failed starting prospect to second lefty in the pen to the main left handed set up man and part time closer. That is quite a leap for a young pitcher to take in the span of two years. Last year Bastardo actually took over the closer duties when Madson and Contreras were both down with injuries and performed very admirable. In the first half of the season he was as shut down as any relief pitcher in baseball. In the second half he hit a wall and came back down to earth. The Phillies believe that one of the biggest reasons for it was that there was no other lefty in the bullpen after JC Romero’s failure to find the plate and release and Bastardo was used too much. The Phillies went out and acquired a few left handed arms in the offseason to help Bastardo out so his workload should be more manageable this season. His .144 BAA and 0.93 are two of the biggest reasons the Phillies think their main left handed relief option is well taken care of.

Michael Stutes came on last year as a rookie and pitched himself into the bullpen picture ending the season as the main right handed set up man. Like Bastardo he hit a bit of a wall in the second half of the season and his performance went downhill. He is back to try to prove last year’s success was no illusion and that he is someone the Phillies can count on over the entire season. He did turn in a good season even with the second half tail off by having a .218 BAA and a 1.24 WHIP. His spot in the pen is not set according to some and while that may be true Stutes will have every opportunity to cement his position on the team.

After the young pitchers comes a pair of veterans trying to claim jobs in the 2012 pen. The Phillies went out and signed left hander Dontrelle Willis and right hander Chad Qualls to supplement the younger arms on the team.

Willis made a comeback last season for the Cincinnati Reds and opened some eyes that he was not a done pitcher by pitching well in a number of games. His numbers against left handers really opened some eyes. Lefties hit .127 against him with a .369 OPS with 20 K’s to 2 walks. For his career lefties have a .200 BAA and a .562 OPS so the Phillies plan to use him as a left handed reliever and will try to limit his exposure to right handed batters who hit much better against him. The Phillies at this point do not plan on using him as a starting pitcher though the option is there if they need to in a pinch. Speaking of pinches, he is also on the depth chart as a pinch hitter. Jimmy Rollins long time friend is even a possibility of being the Roy Oswalt extra outfielder in the event of an extra inning emergency. Shane Victorino who knows a bit about the outfield told me that he can do it easily, he is that good of an athlete.

Chad Qualls was brought in because of the concerns to Jose Contreras and many Phillie fans have questioned the signing. One reason for the questioning was the Phillies were clamoring about the luxury tax and had just traded Wilson Valdez and said it was to save money which they then turned around and gave to Qualls. Another reason was there were better options out there that went cheaper to other teams like Dan Wheeler. A third was Qualls was a product of Petco field and had awful splits away from the pitcher friendly confines of San Diego. Ruben Amaro has scoffed at the splits and claims they mean little but the facts remain that batters hit .308 with a .881 OPS against Qualls away from Petco and this is Amaro’s riskiest signing this offseason. The Phillies hit 3 home runs in one inning off of Qualls at Citizens Bank Park back when they were still a sputtering offense. Going from Petco to CBP has many fans, writers, and scouts very wary about how Qualls will perform. The Phillies hope he returns to the same form that made him so effective in Houston and Arizona.

Kyle Kendrick is the long man and spot starter. He was effective in this role last year but he might be pressed into the rotation if Joe Blanton cannot do the job or if there are injuries to one of the starters. The long man role most likely in that case would go to David Herndon.

Herndon was derided by many fans in 2010 because he performed poorly but what most fans were not smart enough to figure out is that Herndon as a rule 5 pick had never pitched above AA and really was not ready to be a Major League pitcher yet. In the beginning of 2011 these fans did seem to be right in the assessment that Herndon would not amount to anything. After being sent down to AAA Lehigh Valley it was found out that Herndon was tipping his pitches and the Phillies worked on his delivery and mechanics. When he returned to the Phillies he began to pitch better, taking over Kendrick’s long man role while Kendrick was filling in for the injured Blanton.

Another factor in his success was he was able to harness his sinker much better. While many still kept Herndon in the doghouse and cast a lot of evil words his way after every ball he threw Herndon turned in a decent year in the role he was given. His spot in the pen is definitely not ensured but if he does not make the cut he will be down at AAA Lehigh just waiting for a call. I believe that Herndon could actually do the Kyle Kendrick role of spot starting if the team needed him. I am not saying he would be good at it but I do believe he can throw five innings if they needed him to and that gives him some added value.

After Herndon is several starting pitchers competing for roles, some are starting pitching options like Joe Blanton, Joel Piniero, Dave Bush who may end up in the bullpen and others are young upcoming pitchers. The starters most likely will not be thrust into the bullpen picture as Blanton is too expensive (other than Barry Zito you do not have many $8 million dollar mop up long relief guys) and Piniero has a clause that lets him opt out if he fails to make the team but the younger guns are most definitely a big part of the depth chart.

Philippe Aumont came over in the Cliff Lee trade and proceeded to bomb out as a starting pitcher so the Phillies put him back in the bullpen and he rebounded with a 2011 that had the Phillies looking at him as a potential closer one day. He most likely will be the closer at AAA Lehigh Valley this season but should see his first action sometime during the year.

Michael Schwimer got his first look at the Majors last season with mixed results. He had good strike out numbers in limited action but he gave up a few home runs which cost him. Schwimer has a really good arm and the Phillies believe he is definitely a pitcher who fits into their bullpen picture.

Justin DeFratus is another young gun who gives the Phillies much hope for the future in the pen. He has been slowed so far this spring by a slight injury but the Phillies think he will be ready for the games during the spring. He had his first cup of coffee last season and really impressed the Phillies. Like most of the other young guns, he needs to work some on his control but the Phillies believe he has the stuff that he might end up being a closer one day.

On the other side of the mound come the left handed pitchers, Joe Savery, Jeremy Horst, and Jake Diekman.

Savery’s career was in jeopardy after the former 1st round pick had failed to produce in the minor league level. Enough so that the Phillies had converted him to a first baseman/outfielder to begin the year and he got off to a very hot start hitting the ball. After he was put into a game as an emergency pitcher it was reported that he actually threw the ball better than he had in previous years. The result was, as he moved up to AA Reading and AAA Lehigh he was being used more and more as a left handed reliever and he eventually got a September call up as a reward for his progress during the season. Savery’s hard work has his star back in the picture and the Phillies like his versatility as he has started, relieved, and even played the field.

Jeremy Horst came over for Wilson Valdez a few weeks ago. Horst shuttled between AAA and the Reds over the 2011 season seeing 12 games with the big club pitching to a 2.93 ERA but it was misleading as he had a .290 BAA and a .816 OPSA. Control was one of his bigger problems with the Reds as he walked 6 in 15.1 innings. He was much better at AAA with a 2.81 ERA a 1.07 WHIP and 42 K’s in 51 innings. Ruben Amaro brought him in to give the Phillies more depth but the 26 year old could be a big factor in 2012 as a left handed swing man like Kyle Kendrick.

Jake Diekman was a 30th round pick that began his career as a starter. After 2 unsuccessful years in the rotation of the A ball teams the Phillies converted him over to relief pitching. Since the conversion Diekman has took off and pitched his way into discussions for a bullpen spot. His performance was good enough that the Phillies actually had thoughts of promoting him last September for the bullpen despite his never being above A ball before last year. Instead the Phillies sent him to the Arizona Fall League. Diekman did not disappoint and there are some who believe it will be him and not any of the other left handers who will finish the year as the number two lefty in the pen. At AA Reading he managed to strike out 83 batters in 65 innings. The drawback with him is his control sometimes deserts him; he walked 44 in those 65 innings.

Other names that are on the depth chart but less so are any of the minor league starters like Austin Hyatt, Drew Naylor, Tyler Cloyd, JC Ramirez, any of the baby aces, and some minor leaguers like BJ Rosenberg, Michael Cisco, Justin Friend, Eric Pettis, Colby Shreve, and Juan Sosa who are either once promising pitchers who have had injuries, less success than hoped for or are just a bit farther away that they cannot be counted on for this year but are definitely in the picture for the future.

Depth Chart

Jonathan Papelbon – Closer
Antonio Bastardo
Jose Contreras – DL
Chad Qualls
Michael Stutes
Dontrelle Willis
Kyle Kendrick if not in the rotation
David Herndon
Justin DeFratus
Phillipe Aumont
Michael Schwimer
Joe Savery
Jeremy Horst
Jake Diekman
BJ Rosenberg