Phillies Bullpen Has the Potential to be Great in 2014
Much has been made of closer Jonathan Papelbon — his age, the negative trends, some purported clubhouse issues, and the Phillies’ desire to trade him. And with good reason; Papelbon is owed between $26 and $39 million over the next two or three years, depending on if his 2016 option vests. The rest of the bullpen has been an afterthought, but it has the potential to be great in 2014.
Antonio Bastardo figures to get most of the work in the eighth inning. While he had good results in 2013 (2.32 ERA), his actual performance showed a rather steep decline. His strikeout rate fell by a whopping ten percent while his walk rate remained at 12 percent. He was also lucky in two ways: his home run rate as a percentage of fly balls was only four percent compared to his eight percent career average, and his strand rate was 82 percent compared to his 75 percent career average. If his performance in those 42.2 innings was the start of his downfall, then the Phillies are in for some bad news. On the other hand, if it was a small sample fluctuation, Bastardo should be able to bounce back, get his strikeout rate back above 30 percent, and continue to be a strong late-inning option for the club.
Fellow southpaw Jake Diekman‘s stock rapidly rose in the final two months of the 2013 season, posting a 1.64 ERA with 26 strikeouts and 10 walks in 22 innings of work. Diekman used his mid-90’s fastball and a heavy slider to dominate hitters, becoming one of the few bright spots on an otherwise depressing roster. In fact, he was one of only six players to earn an “A’ from us in our report card series. Over his career, right-handed hitters have hit Diekman significantly better than left-handed hitters have, so it would make sense for him to satisfy a LOOGY role.
Jeremy Horst rounds out the lefties. Horst is recovering from an elbow injury which ended his season in mid-June. He will be playing for a spot at the back end of the bullpen during spring training. When he was healthy in 2012, he showed a lot of promise, striking out hitters at a 32 percent clip while walking 11 percent of them. Prior to his injury last season, he showed diminished velocity which translated to a reduced ability to miss bats. If he has fully recovered from his injury and gained back the nearly two MPH he lost on his fastball, he can provide a significant boost to the bullpen, even working his way back into high-leverage situations if merited by his performance.
The Phillies may have bought low on Brad Lincoln, acquiring him from the Blue Jays for back-up catcher Erik Kratz and Minor League pitcher Rob Rasmussen. He had a stellar showing in 2012, particularly with the Pirates before he went to Toronto, posting a 2.73 ERA with a 25 percent strikeout rate and a six percent walk rate. His results weren’t quite as good in 31.1 innings at the Major League level with the Jays in 2013, as he finished with a 3.98 ERA. His strikeout and walk rates were abysmal, at 17 percent and 15 percent, respectively. Like Bastardo, if Lincoln’s 2013 peripherals were a result of a small sample anomaly, then Ruben Amaro will have added a solid right-hander to the bullpen.
Justin De Fratus is another homegrown bullpen piece we have heard about for years but we have yet to see his maximized potential. De Fratus mixes a 93 MPH fastball and an 83 MPH slider from the right side. He missed the second half of the 2012 season with an elbow injury, but returned last season and showed good form. De Fratus hasn’t shown a platoon split in 61.1 innings at the Major League level. If he continues to make positive progress, he could leapfrog some of his teammates and earn himself trust in high-leverage spots. For now, he’ll look to improve on last year’s 3.86 ERA, 20 percent strikeout rate, and 12 percent walk rate.
We pointed out this quirk with Ethan Martin in August and it’s worth repeating now that he figures to find work out of the bullpen: “Martin’s velocity immediately begins declining in his second inning of work and loses as much as 2 MPH by the third inning.” Martin ended up getting moved to the bullpen after a start on September 3. In seven innings of work out of the ‘pen, he struck out 11 and walked four. Here’s the breakdown by innings:
We really don’t have an idea how good Martin will be out of the pen, but the potential is there and he is a dark horse candidate to be a solid contributor for the Phillies in 2014. If he earns a spot at the back end of the ‘pen, he’ll start with low-leverage duty and work his way up.
Finally, there’s B.J. Rosenberg. He relies mostly on a mid-90’s fastball and a slider not unlike most of the other right-handers in the Phillies’ bullpen. Rosenberg has struggled with control in 44.1 innings at the Major League level. He has no problem missing bats, but he has walked 12 percent of batters he has faced. Fortunately, the ‘pen is plenty deep enough where Rosenberg can make strides without having to perform in crucial situations.
The bullpen isn’t flashy, and aside from Papelbon, it doesn’t have any household names. But as the Cardinals showed with their National League champion bullpen in 2013, the best bullpen is not necessarily the most expensive. A ‘pen full of young, cheap arms with high upside is just what the doctor ordered. 2014 is looking bleak for the Phillies anyway, so giving the young corps a chance to learn on the fly might bode well for roster construction in 2015 and beyond.