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Relievers and This Winter’s Checkbook

The bullpen! It needs help! And although the lingering fear is that the best fix is to go with an influx of external candidates, pouring free agent money out the taps and dishing pint after pint of it to the latest and greatest relief arms to grace the free agent pool, there may actually be a way to avoid such a money dump.

Right now, the relief corps looks pretty crappy. September call-ups on tryout, lethargy in the air and the absence of other names via injury or suspension have rendered the bullpen a place of shame and dread, its gate-opening an act to be regarded with the utmost distaste. Hell, even the best arm currently available within gets booed nearly every time out, regardless of performance.

It’s a sad place. But the good news is that brighter days may be ahead in 2014! That’s easy to say about nearly any aspect of this Phillies club, but we need to go one thing at a time, lest our gripes pile upon our chests to a suffocating weight before we’re ready to bear them.

Here’s what we know: Jonathan Papelbon isn’t getting traded and will be back, Antonio Bastardo will be back and Jake Diekman will, too. Beyond that, little is certain, and that lack of certainty is the impetus for my free agency worries. But a closer look reveals that this trio is actually a damned fine start for a ‘pen. Consider:

There’s a lot of “faith” and gut-based conjecture there, but those aren’t the guys worth going in-depth on right now. They’re somewhat-known commodities in their assumed presence in 2014. The real interest lies in Diekman and the wild cards following in his wake.

Diekman arrived on the scene in 2012 armed with an impressively electric fastball and slider and the control problems that come with lefties possessing such an arsenal (at least, the ones not named Billy Wagner). Diekman walked 20 batters in 27.1 Major League IP last season, neatly complementing from the left side the wildness of Phillippe Aumont from the right. This season, however, has seen a more effective Diekman trim the free passes (14 – 12 unintentional – in 33.2 IP. His K rate is down but still at 10 per nine innings, and lefties are hitting (get this) just .158/.222/.158 in 64 plate appearances. Lefties are striking out more than a third of the time and walking at only about eight percent. The man is becoming a legitimate lefty weapon.

Beyond him, an intriguing wild card is the recently converted Ethan Martin, whose travails as a starter have landed him in the spot most people in-the-know have envisioned for him all along. Martin’s starts were laborious and largely ineffective, but the stuff has many people thinking a translation to the bullpen could be the Rosetta Stone Martin needs for a successful career. Is it a bummer to see another acquired pitching prospect’s starting ability peter out? Sure. But Martin – teamed with Aumont, if he ever gets his head right, and I believe he can – has the stuff to be a solid reliever. What’s more, he could possess the laxity to be a solid multi-inning reliever.

As a starter, his fastball sat 93-94 with a mid-80s slider and change and mid-70s curve. You can expect a pitch to be trimmed from the repertoire if he stays a reliever, but you can also expect an uptick in velocity with the freedom to let ‘er rip in one or two innings. Also encouraging: the first time through the order, hitters put up just a .618 OPS against Martin. Keeping him from multiple exposure could improve his chances of being successful.

Beyond that, excitement dims a little. Justin De Fratus still has the potential to be a solid relief arm but has yet to show he’s realizing it for any extended stretch; Mike Adams will be back, but it’s hard to expect vintage performance form him, given his arm troubles; some amalgamation of Raul Valdes, Jeremy Horst, B.J. Rosenberg and others could fill in the gaps, or at least provide depth options.

The truth of the matter is that there isn’t enough certainty for Amaro to avoid digging in his pockets altogether this offseason. Perhaps a saving grace could be that there isn’t much certainty to be had in free agency, either (trades, especially when it comes to relievers, are impossible to speculate on).

Maybe it requires a little more faith thanmost would be comfortable providing, especially given the recent failures and lack of depth in this particular corps recently. But I’ve got the faith that, yes, there is a bullpen core in place and, yes, a big-money relief addition can be avoided while a competitive group is still fielded. We’ll find out soon enough if that bullet is dodged.