Thursday, December 31, 2009

What is Happening with the Bullpen

The 2009 Phillies had a good season as they won the National League for the second year in a row, even though it seemed that a few aspects of the team performed under their capabilities. There is no question that Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, and Brad Lidge had less than stellar seasons. I expect all three to rebound from their 2009 seasons and based on their career numbers, they should have no problem returning to form. Rollins puts up consistent numbers when comparing seasons as a whole, Hamels never really had a bad season until 2009, and Lidge has always followed up a bad season with a career year. With an improved Rollins, the already potent lineup becomes a wrecking machine. With an improved Hamels, the Phillies rotation boasts 2 bonafide aces with the potential for a third, in Happ. With an improved Lidge, the back of the bullpen becomes solidified, but the bullpen in general still has to be viewed as the weakest part of the team.

Going into the offseason, the Phillies weaknesses were pretty easy to identify. These weaknesses were the bench, thirdbase, and most importantly, the bullpen. The Phillies significantly improved their bench with the additions of Gload, Schneider, and Castro. Even without the additions of these three players, the Phillies improved their bench dramatically just by discarding Eric Bruntlett. If that isn’t the definition of addition by subtraction, I don’t know what is. The Phillies also improved the thirdbase position as they refused to pick up the option on Pedro Feliz and then acquired Placido Polanco to replace him. That would be a classic addition by addition move. With all the moves that the Phillies have made this offseason, it seems as if they have avoided their biggest need, bullpen help. Granted there were more valuable players at other positions, but the bullpen needed the most improvement. The Phillies have officially lost Park and Myers, and the return of Eyre is still in question.

The Phillies have been rumored to be in talks with many different relievers this offseason including, Brandon Lyon, Fernando Rodney, Ron Mahay, and the latest being Mike Macdougal and Danys Baez. Lyon and Rodney could have been high on the Phillies priority list in the beginning of the offseason, but they quickly became out of the Phillies price range after devoting $18 million to Placido Polanco. This then limited the Phillies to go after a few mid-level relievers. It really is unfortunate that this free agent class is the worst class this decade. As more and more players are being signed, it seems that the Phillies are content on their current bullpen options. At first glance, this appears as a horrible decision because the Phillies bullpen was horrendous last year and they could potentially lose 4 pitchers in Myers, Park, Eyre, and Condrey. How could this be viewed as an improvement, if anything, the porous bullpen has digressed. So how can the Phillies be content on their current bullpen options? Who are these options?

These options are 47-year old Jamie Moyer and a collection of pitchers from the Phillies farm system. If you take a look at the Phillies prospects, they are bullpen heavy, and outfield heavy. Many times the relief pitching prospects will not get much attention because they will be viewed as having limited ceilings. Generally they are older prospects as they are either converted starters or were college closers. The way the Phillies have drafted in recent years, they seem to draft high potential toolsy type position players early, and then alternate between high school and college pitchers in the later rounds. Because of this, the Phillies have a smorgasbord of good relief pitchers in their farm system.

The minor league pitchers that could find themselves with a legitimate opportunity to pitch in the Phillies bullpen in 2010 are almost unlimited. There are 2 starters in Lehigh Valley that could find time in Andrew Carpenter and Joe Savery. There are 3 more starters in Reading that could see Philadelphia in Yohan Flande, Vance Worley, and Michael Stutes. And there are 4 relievers in Reading that could be given a shot in Scott Mathieson, B.J. Rosenberg, Michael “not David” Schwimmer, and Sergio Escalona. That is 11 different pitching prospects in just 2 levels, and that is not even including Antonio Bastardo who finished the season on the major league squad. All of the aforementioned pitchers have major league talent and many of them will be major league ready in 2010. The pitchers that have the best chance of appearing in the Phillies bullpen in 2010 are Mathieson, Bastardo, Escalona, Carpenter, and as a long shot, Vance Worley.

Mathieson originally was destined to start the 2010 season in triple-A but with the lack of movement by the Phillies front office, it appears that Mathieson is all but guaranteed a bullpen spot out of spring training. Mathieson, once he makes it back to the majors, will be an amazing story. Mathieson was originally a starting pitcher in the Phillies farm system and was promoted to the Phillies starting rotation in 2006. Mathieson didn’t do stellar as he fell off towards the end of the season but he showed a lot of promise in his fastball and slider. It became apparent on why Mathieson fell off during the end of the 2006 season, as he had severe elbow issues and had to be shut down due to injury. Since the end of the 2006 season, Mathieson has undergone 3 elbow surgeries, 2 of which were Tommy John surgeries. Even before the array of elbow injuries, Mathieson was projected as a future closer based on his over powering fastball and hard biting slider. After his 3 elbow surgeries it made the decision much easier to change him from starter to reliever. Mathieson made it back on the mound towards the end of this year for the first time in over 3 years and showed that the surgeries didn’t affect his ability to pitch at all. In 22 games, through 3 different levels, Mathieson was 4-0 with a 0.84 era while striking out 34 compared to only 17 hits allowed. I mentioned before that he has an overpowering fastball and that could stand as an understatement. I have witnessed on multiple occasions his fastball reaching 102 mph. With a 102 mph fastball and a good slider, it hurts to say but Billy Wagner would be a great comparison to Mathieson. Lucky for the Phillies, Mathieson is actually liked by teammates and doesn’t possess facial features or personality traits that resemble disease carrying rodents.

Antonio Bastardo is a very interesting prospect as he has been a starter in the Phillies farm system for his entire career and was thrust into the Phillies rotation in 2009 but will be expected to be a major part of the Phillies bullpen in 2010. If the Phillies do not bring Scott Eyre back, Bastardo will be the primary left-handed reliever in the Phillies bullpen, at least for the beginning portion of the 2010 season. This exists because J.C. Romero will be recovering from off-season elbow surgery and is not expected to be ready by the opening of the season. Bastardo has starting ability, there is no question about that, but currently provides more value to the Phillies as a reliever. Bastardo is 23-years old and throws a low 90s fastball, a filthy changeup, and slider. Bastardo doesn’t get much attention in terms of a young player coming up through the system. This surprises me because he has absolutely embarrassed batters in his 3 seasons in the minors. First of all, it is extremely rare for a non collegiate player to go through the farm system in less than 3 years. In Bastardo’s first full season in the Phillies system, he went 10-0 with a 2.14 era. Overall, Bastardo is 19-9 with a 2.58 era in 271 innings. What makes Bastardo such an incredible prospect is that he strikes out batters at a very good rate and he refuses to allow batters to get contact on his pitches. In his 3 seasons in the minors, Bastardo has struck out 10 batters per 9 innings and only allowed 6.7 hits per 9 innings. Bastardo appears to be very deceiving as he consistently blows batters away with his 90 mph fastball and makes them then look silly on his changeup. As a reliever, Bastardo appears almost identical to J.C. Romero, as they are both left-handed, throw the same exact pitches with almost identical throwing motions, are the same size, and are both Caribbean born. With both of these players on the team and in the same exact role, it should really benefit Bastardo as he can really learn a lot from Romero.

As long Romero is injured, Escalona will be on the major league squad as he is the next best left-handed option in the Phillies system. Escalona is a good minor league reliever as he has posted a 3.40 era in 306 innings, he has struck out 309 batters, and allowed only 294 hits. Escalona does not have electric stuff as his fastball sits at about 88-89 but he changes speeds affectively enough to get batters out. Escalona is a solid option as the second left-hander out of the pen. He wouldn’t do any worse than Jack Taschner last year.

Carpenter is also interesting because he has made a few spot starts for the Phillies in the past and will be involved in the competition for the 5th starter’s spot in spring training. Carpenter has been a good starter in the Phillies farm system for a few years even though he doesn’t appear to have dominating stuff. In 2009, Carpenter was one of the better pitchers in the International League as he was 11-6 with a 3.35 era. Carpenter usually sits in the low 90s with his fastball and throws an average slider and changeup. He projects as a decent middle reliever and could take Clay Condrey’s previous position.

A long shot to make an appearance in the Phillies bullpen would be double-A starter, Vance Worley. Worley was just drafted last year so he still is very inexperienced but the Phillies front office seems to really like Worley. Worley was being scouted by advanced scouts including Ruben Amaro Jr., during the time of Bastardo’s promotion and then again during the trade deadline. The Phillies would rather take time and develop Worley as a starter but if the other bullpen options fail, Worley could get a look.

It seems like a risky move for a championship contending team to go with a handful of unknown pitchers in the bullpen but talent usually wins out over experience. The Phillies took a similar risk in 2003 on minor league starter Ryan Madson. That year, Madson was undeniably the best reliever the Phillies had and would not have found themselves in a playoff race without him. The current options that the Phillies possess are talented enough to not be concerned about their lack of experience.

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