The Philadelphia Phillies' bullpen: Sifting through a stable of fledgling arms

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The Philadelphia Phillies' bullpen: Sifting through a stable of fledgling arms
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Antonio Bastardo

COMMENTARY| The Philadelphia Phillies marched 10 arms out of the bullpen in 2012 that are no older than 27. There's a mix of righties and lefties. There's a wide sample of specialties. There's inarguable talent, explosive stuff, hard throwers and gumption. Of course, when you're throwing all that in the cauldron, don't forget the main ingredient -- a rank wealth of inexperience.

In 2012, these Kindergarten Kids were afforded a season long audition, as free agent veterans amounted to epic failures and injuries took their toll on others. Remember Chad Qualls?

Oh, you just threw up? Sorry.

How about Jose Contreras? What? You heard he just checked into an assisted living facility? At least we didn't have to watch the Dontrelle Willis circus at Citizens Bank Park. They cut him before the train rolled into town.

The fact is the deficiencies of general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr.'s offseason bullpen moves after 2011 raised the curtain for a show-and-tell performance by just about every arm considered a pen prospect in the Phillies' system. After an otherwise dismal season, put that in your Silver Linings Playbook.

The Phillies opened 2012 with a 12-man pitching staff. At this point, it's likely they start 2013 with 11 considering there may be some platoon situations in the everyday lineup. Of course, that could change. Jonathan Papelbon returns as your closer. That leaves five spots up in the air. The Fightins will rely heavily on at least three or four of these young arms in 2013. We'll break down their strengths and weaknesses and take a look at the favorites to hold down those bullpen spots.

Signing veteran free agent arms to multi-year contracts to fill out a bullpen has become a risky proposition. For every Javier Lopez and Joe Nathan success (ERAs in the 2s), there's a Heath Bell and Frank Francisco blunder (ERAs in the 5s). Considering the amount of youth learning the ABCs of pitching at the major-league level in the Phillies' pen, and a roster of monster contracts, the emergence of some of these kids will be a vital component to reestablishing control of the National League East.

Antonio Bastardo - LHP (2012: 2-5, 4.33 ERA) -- Bastardo gets elder statesmen status because although he just turned 27 in September, he's been around the Phillies' clubhouse the longest of the group. He emerged in 2009 and has some postseason experience, which only matters if the Phillies find their way back to the postseason. Bastardo is also cheap, which is important to keep in mind. Most of these pitchers, including Bastardo, won't be eligible for free agency until 2016, and there aren't many who warrant big-time arbitration money yet. While Bastardo's numbers won't make anyone salivate when you look at the back of his bubble gum card, if you dig a little further into the pudding you'll find proof of his value.

Bastardo's 4.5 walks per 9 and 1.21 home runs allowed per nine need to come down. It's a matter of staying away from the "oh no" pitch. You know the one. The pitcher lets it go and before his push leg lands fans of his team are screaming, "Oh, no!" But Bastardo turned in an exceptional 14.02 strikeouts per nine rate in 2012. That was third in baseball behind only Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. That's something any team can work with, which is why rumors have it that Amaro is being badgered about Bastardo's availability. Batters hit just .204 against Tony the Bas...well, you know. Those numbers tell you that he is not just your left-handed specialist. He's your David West circa 1993. The question is who is the Larry Andersen? ROSTER PROBABILITY: LOCK

Michael Stutes - RHP (2012: 0-0, 6.35 ERA in 5 games) -- 2012 should be a wash for Stutes, who went down early in the season. To be fair, he probably never should have pitched. After shoulder problems in spring training, he schlepped out to the hill five times, ballooning his ERA in his final appearance against the San Diego Padres when he surrendered three runs. The Phillies shut him down and eventually he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder. Although the ladies of the Philadelphia area will be relieved to know that surgery did not affect his face or hair flow, we won't know how his arm bounced back until this coming spring.

Stutes gets linked with Bastardo here because he was essentially the ying to Bastardo's yang in 2011, when he went 6-2 with a 3.63 ERA in 62 innings of work. He averaged just short of a strikeout per inning. He's a fastball-slider right-hander to accompany Bastardo's mirror image. The question is whether or not he'll be able to recapture the average 93.1 m.p.h. fastball he featured when he burst on the scene out of nowhere two seasons ago. If he does, it adds to the numbers issue, but that's a great problem to have. ROSTER PROBABILITY: UNLIKELY FOR OPENING DAY BUT COULD BE GREAT FOR DEPTH

Phillippe Aumont - RHP (2012: 0-1, 3.68 ERA in 14.2 innings of work) -- Widely considered one of the Phillies' top prospects, Aumont is a beast at 6'7", 260 lbs. His size wouldn't be anything more than an intimidation factor (doesn't work all that well for Jon Rauch) but Aumont throws a dead weight, sinking fastball that averages close to 96 m.p.h. He also throws a split with similar action that averages out at 86. Then, when you're gearing up for all that sink, he'll go 4-seam upstairs at 96. If he learns how to locate them consistently, well, that's just not fair. But there's the rub. Aumont has been a consistent 5+ walks per nine pitcher in his professional career. He's got ballistic stuff, and if he figures it out, he's the closer of the future. Until he does, he's a seventh inning guy, but I wouldn't allow that kind of talent to wallow in the minor leagues any longer. At this point, he needs to pitch his way out of the show. ROSTER PROBABILITY: LIKELY

Justin De Fratus - RHP (2012: 0-0, 3.38 ERA in 13 games) -- De Fratus was also bitten by the injury tyrannosaur (I mean, honestly, it was no bug) that pillaged the Phillies in 2012. He didn't pitch at all until July 10 and then wallowed in Triple-A, putting up productive numbers, until September 3 when he finally got the ball with the Phillies. He looked healthy, which is first and foremost. He was throwing harder than he did in his debut season in 2011, which is also a good sign coming off injury. He registered 5 holds in the month of September, for what it's worth, and if you flesh that out over a six-month season to 30 that would have been 7th among major-league relievers. Don't mind the grain of salt that just came with. ROSTER POSSIBILITY: UNLIKELY TO START BUT AGAIN, GREAT FOR DEPTH. COULD EARN A SPOT WITH A GOOD SPRING OR IF THEY DECIDE TO CARRY 12 PITCHERS

Jake Diekman - LHP (2012: 1-1, 3.95 in 32 games) -- An overwhelming statistical consistency among this group of young relievers is the rate in which they issue free passes. It's like they all own a bad club together and roam the streets with "no cover" cards to try and drum up business. Diekman's BB/9 ratio was a frightening 6.59, overshadowing an impressive 11.52 K/9 over a decent sample size. Diekman's inability to throw strikes got him a ticket back to Triple-A Lehigh Valley in August before he returned to the big club after September call-ups. To pitch for a contender in the majors, you simply have to collect at the door and make hitters earn their way on base.

Diekman hides the ball from hitters well and comes from the side, which would make him a prime candidate for situational lefty work. Left-handed batters hit just .196 against him. But until he proves that he can throw strikes, he may be an odd man out. ROSTER POSSIBILITY: UNLIKELY TO START

Jeremy Horst - LHP (2012: 2-0, 1.15 ERA in 32 games) -- One move you can throw kudos to Amaro for making before the 2012 season is acquiring this lefty from the Cincinnati Reds for utility man Wilson Valdez. Horst was called up in late June and was the Phils' most consistent arm out of the pen in the second half of the season. He has earned the right to be the Phillies' situational lefty. From the left side, hitters batted a paltry .170 with a .250 on-base percentage and an incredible .191 slugging percentage. The Phillies have been mentioned in the rumor mill as having interest in Jeremy Affeldt of the San Francisco Giants. Compare his numbers to Horst, who will come dirt cheap, and tell me why you would spend that money when you already have a left-handed solution. Sometimes teams look too hard for an improvement when they're already improved. ROSTER PROBABILITY: HIGHLY LIKELY

Josh Lindblom - RHP (2012 Totals: 3-5, 3.55 ERA in 74 games. With Phillies, 1-3, 4.63 ERA in 26 games) -- Acquired along with prospect Ethan Martin from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the trade for Shane Victorino, Lindblom was a promising bullpen piece that got off to a slow start in Philadelphia. But there's something about this kid I love. There's a possibility that Lindblom pressed a little too much in trying to impress his new team and a fan base that actually cares. This entire group of pitchers has good stuff. Most are hard throwers. Most have at least one serious breaking pitch. Lindblom is no different.

Lindblom simply lost his command after coming over from L.A. His BB/9 doubled in Philly. But he still averaged better than a strikeout per inning and he had proven with the Dodgers that he can locate. Right-handed hitters hit just .209 against Lindblom. He could play the situational righty role or be a seventh inning man if he can regain the ability to paint the strike zone. Another possibility for Lindblom could be long man. There aren't many pitchers in this group that have starting experience but Lindblom was a starter in the minor leagues as recently as 2010. Right now, the Phillies don't have a ton of starting pitching depth. If they go with 12 pitchers I could see them using Tyler Cloyd out of the pen as a long man and spot or emergency starter. Long way to go before those decisions are made. ROSTER PROBABILITY: MY LONGSHOT TO MAKE THE ROSTER AND CONTRIBUTE

B.J. Rosenberg - RHP (2012: 1-2, 6.12 ERA in 22 games) -- Rosenberg is another guy with an electric arm and a lack of a degree from the University of Pitching. Rosenberg will top 95 on the gun with consistency but if you aren't locating your fastball in the majors you are going to be minced meat. When he is locating, Rosenberg looks beastly. He had a 1.26 ERA in September in 12 innings of work, so maybe he figured something out. Hitters whacked their way to a Mendoza-esque .200 batting average against Rosenberg. Strangely, righties hit .214 while lefties hit only .188. If he can get lefties out as a right-handed pitcher with regularity, he needs to learn to go after them with confidence. He walked 14 hitters in 2012, and 12 of them were lefties. That stat tells me that there's a lack of confidence somewhere in his makeup that can be corrected to make Rosenberg an asset. ROSTER PROBABILITY: UNLIKELY TO START THE SEASON

Joe Savery - LHP (2012: 1-2, 5.40 ERA in 19 games) -- When Savery came to the Phillies from Rice University he was an all-world college baseball talent. The question was whether they would put him to work with the bat or his arm. He's gone from pitcher to hitter and back in his professional career, and the 27-year-old had multiple chances to prove himself in 2012. Savery may have the best control of all of these young Phillies' arms, with a BB/9 rate below 3, but he pitches to contact a little too much. He's a fastball-slider lefty just like Bastardo and Horst, but without the ammunition of his teammates. Out of all these pitchers, Savery can least rely on his stuff to get him through a storm. He has to pitch his way through it. Thus far, it hasn't worked out. ROSTER PROBABILITY: HIGHLY UNLIKELY

Michael Schwimer -- RHP (2012: 2-1, 4.46 ERA in 35 games) -- Schwimer gets lumped in with Stutes, Rosenberg, De Fratus and Lindblom in that they're all righties with considerable talent and a big old question mark sitting next to their name on the 40-man roster. They all, at times, have looked dominant. They all, at times, have looked like they are outmanned and aren't ready for the big time. Out of the five, if you can shake the tree and two fall out to be legitimate contributors, you have to consider that a win. And odds are that two of them, at least, will.

From 2011 to 2012, Schwimer adjusted his repertoire to rely more on his slider than his changeup. He also began cutting his fastball with more regularity. Perhaps those modifications will help continue Schwimer's progression, but it remains to be seen. Odds are that the Phillies acquire a bullpen arm of some ilk via free agency, whether they need to or not. They likely won't enter the season rolling the dice with Papelbon and this stable of young arms. They'll acquire an arm with the notion that they have so much to fall back on. ROSTER PROBABILITY: UNLIKELY TO START THE SEASON, BUT AGAIN, DEPTH

I can't imagine there are any managers that wouldn't mind taking on the numbers problem the Phillies have in the pen. The reliever market is so volatile that teams are becoming more and more unwilling to offer up multi-year deals to journeymen -- even those with a pedigree. In the reliever game, you never know when the wheels are going to fall off the wagon. Young, live arms are always trendy. Ten of them is inherited wealth. The Phillies may also use one or two of these guys in a trade package to help bring back parts to fill their gaping lineup holes, which would change the very nature of any of my speculations as to who starts the season in red pinstripes.

There are stats like WPA (Win Probability Added) and Leverage numbers that will measure a reliever's worth based on the situations they are thrown into. That's all well and good when the sample size is significant. With these young relievers, it's best to start with who has the stuff to make hitters miss, and who is a turnstile to first base via the walk. Well, as we discussed, that's the common theme to this crew. They have the ability to blow it by you, and the propensity to escort you to a higher on-base percentage. The Phillies need to find out who's ready to tip the scales to the former rather than the latter.

Pete Lieber is a freelance writer who has covered the Phillies for three years and bled with them since long before Joe Cowly was supposed to be the second coming. Follow him on Twitter at @Lieber14.

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