A tale of two bullpens…hopefully

BY STEVE WILDMAN, Staff Writer

October 8th, 2009 was a beautiful, sunny, fall afternoon.  The perfect day for a NLDS game versus the Colorado Rockies.  A day which Cole Hamels was taking the mound, and a day which our Phightin’s were going to take a commanding 2-0 lead in this first round playoff series.

However, the game started as a typical Hollywood-Hamels start in 2009, with Cole giving up 4 runs in the first 5 innings, after which Charlie Manuel decided to go to the bullpen.  When regular season starter Joe Blanton trotted out from the center field warning track, there was a collective ‘okay, we were told by Charlie that this may happen’ around the stadium.  But when a second regular season starter, JA Happ, trotted out only one inning later,  a collective ‘what in the…’  echoed from South Philly.

As many Phillies fans can recall, the team couldn’t get it done that day, as they fell 5-4 to the ugliest uniforms in baseball.  And one may also remember that the next game set for two days later was postponed due to blizzard conditions out in Colorado (sound familiar?), which allowed the decision to use both Happ and Blanton out of the bullpen in one  game to not blow up in Uncle Chuck’s face.  He couldn’t resist using both of the aforementioned regular-season STARTERS the next day, however, with starting Happ and subbing in Blanton after three innings.

Manuel used two of his regular season starters, and effective ones at that, out of the bullpen for most of the 2009 postseason, when the Phillies had a chance to repeat as World Series champions.  One could argue that using Happ and Blanton last year worked out as well as it could have.  However, the question that demands more attention is WHY he had to make those decisions, with the reason being he had little confidence in the patchwork ‘pen that was available to him.

So now we fast forward to March of 2010.  The  Phillies traded for Roy Halladay and signed Placido Polanco to replace Cliff Lee and Pedro Feliz.  If championships were built on 2 of the 3 facets of a baseball team, the 2010 Phils would be in great shape in many experts’ opinions.  The problem is that the piece the 2009 Phillies were lacking in seems to have carried over to the 2010 version:  the Bullpen

So what has changed?

Brad Lidge was the most painful Phillie to watch last year.  We won’t go through the numbers, but let’s agree to agree that Lidge was awful during last year’s campaign. Well, Brad has had knee and elbow surgeries during the off-season, and ‘hopes’ to be ready by Opening Day.  Ryan Madson showed he is one of the best set-up men in the business during the second half of the 2008 season, including the Phillies’ World Series Championship run.  However, Madson did little last year to instill any confidence that he can step up as a closer if Lidge misses time in the beginning of the season, or proves ineffective during the course of this season again.  Chan Ho Park, arguably the best arm out of the pen last year, is currently unemployed, and all signs point to he won’t be in red pinstripes in 2010.  Chad Durbin was his usual middle of the road self, and should be serviceable again this year.  Brett Myers spent a little time in the bullpen after coming back from injury late last year, but he’s currently wearing a Phillies’ B squad (Houston Astros) uniform.  Kyle Kendrick could provide some help, provided he loses the battle for the fifth starting position.

Danny Baez and Jose Contreras are two new names which will provide some depth in the bullpen to replace the likes of Park and Condrey as middle relievers and potential late innings arms.

If you haven’t noticed, however, all of the bullpen names mentioned so far happen to throw with their right arms.  With Jamie Moyer being the spring training favorite to win the spot as the fifth starter, the relievers on the current roster who throw with their left consist of JC Romero, Antonio Bastardo, Sergio Escolona, and Mike Zagurski.  That’s four guys, one of which is questionable to be able to start the season (Romero), and the other three who haven’t exactly pictured a portrait of consistency during their time pitching in the majors, who represent the potential opening day lefties out of the pen.  Unfortunately for Escalona, he provided the season’s first blown save on Thursday.

Charlie Manuel, as most fans know, is a manager all about “percentage plays.”  If he’s into his bullpen, and a lefty threat is coming to the plate,  you can make a safe wager that he’s about to take a stroll out to the mound while waving his left arm in the air to signify he wants a southpaw on the hill.  If Romero can’t remain healthy this year, who will that southpaw pitcher be?

The Phillies were beaten by a Yankees team that were better than they were.  Better in the bullpen that is.

With so many variables that go into a 162 game season, it’s impossible to say whether or not the moves Ruben Amaro Jr. have made to bolster the bullpen will work.  Needless to say, he’s taking a gamble by relying on a guy who was hurt on and off last year in Romero, and three unproven minor leaguers, to be his lefty specialists.

Many believe the Phillies should make the postseason again this year, barring any major injuries for a prolonged period of time.  And once in the playoffs, they should be the favorites to represent the NL in the World Series again.

Let’s just hope we don’t have to see two 12-game-winners trotting out from center field in the 6th inning again.

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