Third baseman. Check.
Ace pitcher signed to long-term deal. Check.
Versatile bench. Check.
Bullpen depth… pending.
The Phillies and right-handed relief pitcher Danys Baez recently agreed to a two-year deal, leaving the team with two bullpen spots to fill. Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, Chad Durbin, and J.C. Romero have their slots already, but both Lidge and Romero have had elbow surgery and will be handled delicately so it’s possible that the Phillies will have to find as many as four worthy candidates.
Internally, the Phillies can round out the last two to four spots with: Antonio Bastardo (L), Sergio Escalona (L), Scott Mathieson (R), and Mike Zagurski (L). Of course, there’s always free agent Scott Eyre who may still be re-signed.
It looks as if the Phillies have a lot of depth from the left side, so they have some decisions to make. Obviously, re-signing Eyre would be ideal as he is a proven commodity as a left-handed reliever while the others have minimal Major League experience.
Bastardo made his Major League debut in his fourth season of professional baseball. With the Phillies’ starting rotation in a quandary, Bastardo was called upon to make a spot start against the San Diego Padres on June 2. He allowed only one run in six innings, and backed it up his next time out by holding the Los Angeles Dodgers to two runs in five innings.
However, as inter-league play began, Bastardo’s beginner’s luck began to fade. In three starts against the Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, and Tampa Bay Rays, he allowed 14 earned runs in under 12 innings, which resulted in a demotion.
In his short time with the Phillies, opposing lefties actually hit him better than right-handers, .846 to .827 in OPS. However, lefties struck out more (at about twice the rate of righties) and enjoyed a very high .409 BABIP, signaling that Bastardo may be more effective against them than we think.
Bastardo’s fastball/slider/change-up arsenal is best-suited for him in a LOOGY (left-handed, one out guy) role.
Escalona made his MLB debut in mid-May and spent the rest of the season being juggled from the Majors to the Minors. Overall, he was effective despite the 4.61 ERA — he only allowed runs in three of his 14 appearances.
In his brief MLB experience, he has succeeded about equally against lefties and righties a trend that continued from the Minors. With the Phillies, opposing lefties had a suppressed BABIP (.231) and he strikes out righties about twice as frequently.
He throws four pitches, three of which benefited him last year: his fastball, curve ball, and slider. His change-up, a pitch that would help him out in a left-on-left match-up, was his only subpar pitch last season. At present, Escalona would be a better fit in a mop-up role as opposed to being called on to get out a tough left-handed hitter.
Zagurski missed all of the 2008 season with a hamstring injury, and battled elbow problems early in ’09. Despite the health issues, Zagurski was effective last year in AA Reading, posting a 3.57 ERA.
Throughout his Minor League career, he has limited lefties and righties about equally but has been hampered by the lefties’ .383 BABIP. In his brief stint with the Phillies in ’07, Zagurski limited lefties to a .502 OPS and didn’t allow any home runs to them.
Like Bastardo, Zagurski utilizes fastball/slider/change-up, a good selection of pitches to have against same-handed batters.
Since being acquired from the Chicago Cubs in 2008, Eyre has been a godsend in the Phillies’ bullpen. In his 14+ innings in ’08, he posted a 1.88 ERA, and a 1.50 in 30 innings last season. Over his lengthy Major League career, he has held lefties to an OPS nearly 100 points under that of right-handers, .812 to .717.
Other than Eyre, there aren’t too many appealing left-handed options on the free agent market. Will Ohman and Joe Beimel are the only two who could draw any kind of appeal, and they don’t compare any more favorably to the Phillies’ internal options considering cost.
Ruben Amaro Jr. has talked about the team’s payroll limit of about $140 million throughout this off-season. The team is at $118 million currently with the arbitration cases of Joe Blanton, Shane Victorino, and Chad Durbin pending. With salary assumptions of $6 million, $4.5 million, and $2 million respectively, that would put the Phillies over $130 million. Then there’s the built-in salaries of non-arbitration-eligible players: J.A. Happ, Carlos Ruiz, Kyle Kendrick, Ben Francisco, and any of the other young players the Phillies will use throughout the season.
All totaled, the Phillies may, generously, have $5 million of wiggle room relative to the $140 million cap. There are available funds, a pressing need, and a cure for the need in Eyre, but the Phillies don’t want to hamstring themselves from having the flexibility to make in-season maneuvers that could benefit the team.
Previously, Eyre has gushed about the Phillies organization:
I just want to say this is the most fun group of guys I’ve played with during 11 years in the big leagues.
[...]this group of guys is making it very hard for me to say, “Hey, I’m going to go home and retire.”
The Phillies would love to have Eyre back, but the bullpen is not in dire straits if he chooses to retire instead. Both Bastardo and Zagurski are serviceable second options and they can round out the seventh spot with Mathieson, Escalona, or someone else from within. In the meantime, the Phillies would simply need to hope J.C. Romero stays in good health.
With spring training a couple months away, the Phillies have already done the heavy lifting. The team’s brass will have two months to mull over their bullpen options and a month to evaluate their players in Florida before handing out their roses a la The Bachelor.