Bold Prediction: The Bullpen Will Be Slightly Better Than Terrible
We all got to pick our own topics for this week’s Bold Predictions series, which means I volunteered to do this. As soon as I did, I said to myself, I immediately regret this decision.
It’s not exactly easy to prove that our bullpen won’t stink. It’s kind of been our calling card in recent years.
Not only that, but for a team in the process of building a lineup and molding a rotation, the bullpen is not generally the first priority. A lot of the guys who will populate the cage beneath Ashburn Alley are there by default. Just ask aspiring starter Brett Oberholtzer.
But I made the commitment, and it wouldn’t be a bold prediction if it was obvious, or even likely for that matter.
Anyway, let’s review the facts and see if we can’t come up with a cause for optimism. And if in the end you don’t believe me, that’s okay. At least we can get to know all the new faces in the pen together.
Andrew Bailey is from Voorhees, New Jersey. I’m always rooting for the guy. But he spends so much time on the DL he gets his mail delivered there. He pitched well in early March, generating optimism that was probably unfounded. After all, Bailey has pitched a total of 52.2 innings since 2012. With his velocity dipping ominously as we approach the regular season, a career renaissance for 2009’s Rookie of the Year seems far-fetched. It’s rumored that he’ll start the season in Triple-A. Based on historical evidence, he’ll finish it in the trainer’s room.
Dalier Hinojosa is the most intriguing of the committee. Acquired off of waivers from Boston last July, the Cuban defector is 30 years old and has 24.2 major league innings under his belt, 1.2 of them for the Sox. He spent the other 23 with the Phils in 2015, recording a 22:8 K:BB ratio while pitching to a .78 ERA and a WHIP of 1.000.
He also notched five scoreless innings this spring with a 7:1 K:BB ratio. It seems likely that Hinojosa will begin the year as a set-up man but he will likely also figure into the 9th inning mix, perhaps sooner than later.
David Hernandez is the most expensive among the three. He’ll earn $3.9 million this year with a $1 million bonus for reaching a certain number of games finished. The structure of his contract suggests he is slated to close, though a tricep strain prevented him from getting a full spring in. He also has a sum total of 19 career saves across six seasons, so he’s not exactly a lock for the role.
To the point, Manager Pete Mackanin has declined to name a closer as Spring Training draws to an end. Mackanin says that “Unless I’m 100 percent sure about somebody that I want to call a closer, I’m not going to call anybody a closer. When you think about it, a closer is somebody that you go to, that you count on for the ninth inning. I don’t know if … I hope we have one. But I’m not going to name one right now just to call a guy closer. That doesn’t really mean anything.”
Hmmmm. Ok. I admit that doesn’t sound too promising but let’s try to keep an open mind. At least we have options.
Also noteworthy, after releasing 10-year veteran Edward Mujica earlier this week, the Phils resigned him to a minor league deal on Wednesday afternoon. Though Mujica is not typically used as a closer, he was the go-to 9th inning guy for St. Louis in 2013, when he earned 37 saves. With the closer role still hanging in limbo, we could yet see Mujica at the major league level this year.
Brett Oberholtzer had a solid spring, allowing 0 earned runs in 9.2 innings. He was even in competition for the fifth spot in the starting rotation with Adam Morgan and Vincent Velasquez. Velasquez ultimately got the job and Morgan (who had a tremendous spring) will start the season at Lehigh Valley. This leaves Oberholzer to serve as a left-handed innings-eater alongside righty Jeanmar Gomez, who was effective in the role last year, sporting a 50:17 K:BB ratio and a 3.01 ERA.
Daniel Stumpf and James Russell give the Philes some situational flexibility. Left unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft by the Kansas City Royals, Stumpf boasts a mid-90s fastball and a deceiving slider. The 25 year-old had success this spring, limiting left-handed batters to a .167 average. On account of his Rule 5 status, he’s a pretty strong lock to make the team.
So is Russell, who gave up just 4 hits and notched 9 strikeouts in 6.2 innings this spring. Russell will be used mostly in matchup situations.
Between Oberholzer, Stumpf, and Russell, Pete Mackanin is hoping the bullpen carries enough southpaws to make up for an all-righty rotation. But don’t be shocked if injury or ineffectiveness clear a path to the starter’s mound for Oberholtzer.
The Last Spot
So Hernandez, Hinojosa, Oberholtzer, Gomez, Stumpf, and Russell make six. That leaves Andrew Bailey, Hector Neris, and Ernesto Frieri in the running for the last locker. With Bailey’s declining spring performance and the fact that both he and Frieri are here on minor league contracts, Neris looks like the favorite to grab that last spot. He did notch 41 strikeouts in 40.1 innings for the last place Phils in 2015.
Finding a Leader
There is an intangible that should not be overlooked. Truth is, this bullpen’s results will matter less than its chemistry. This won’t be a season of counting wins and losses. As my esteemed colleague Adam Dembowitz points out, ESPN projects the Phillies to finish dead last in baseball for a second year in a row.
The bullpen will frequently be an afterthought for a team more likely to be down runs than up in the later innings this year. But the rebuilding process offers the opportunity for somebody to step up and become a leader. That’s something our bullpen has sorely missed since the departure of well-liked clubhouse guys like Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson.
Perhaps the less said about Jonathan Papelbon’s tenure as the face of the bullpen, the better. Suffice it to say that it takes a pretty rotten personality to be that good at your job and still be generally despised in the city of Philadelphia.
Let the Washington Nationals choke on his leadership.
As for the Phillies, now is the time for strong personalities and consistent performers to emerge. In addition to forecasting that the Phils relief corps will be something marginally better than horrible, I predict that somebody in this mix will step forward and establish himself as a future leader for the odd little clique that makes up a bullpen.
The group assembled this year is young, inexperienced, and in need of direction. But it is not without talent. We’ve seen worse collections of dead arms and lost souls in recent years.
Last year, the Phillies bullpen gave up 230 earned runs, tied for 9th worst in baseball, and pitched to a .262 average, 5th worst in baseball. I would argue that anything better than this would be cause for optimism.
There will be growing pains and ugly games and guys who don’t pan out. But this group may not throw away leads as readily as you think. Here’s hoping for a borderline average bullpen.