Monday, March 19, 2007

Going into the 2007 season, the Phillies should -- but won't -- be the favorites to win the NL East. No one packs as hard a punch as the Phillies do with both their offense and their starting pitching. It is no secret, however, that the bullpen is weakest link in this otherwise formidable team. The end of spring training will reveal 13 position players and 12 pitchers, of which most appear to be set. Most of the open slots are in the bullpen and the back of the bench.

Current Spring Training Stats
As of 03/18/07
Coste .278 .350 .389
Dobbs .357 .429 .643
Garcia .303 .343 .394

The bench appears to be Abraham Nunez (utility infielder), Jayson Werth (OF), and Carlos Ruiz (C), with Chris Coste, Greg Dobbs, and Karim Garcia playing it out for the last two spots. Coste's ability to catch, as well as play both corner infield positions, should give him the inside track and that's not even mentioning the great offensive spring and regular season he had last year. However, it appears that Coste may start the season at AAA Ottawa following a minor groin problem and recent struggles during spring training. Greg Dobbs has had an impressive spring since the Phillies claimed him off waivers from the Seattle Mariners, but then again, so has Garcia, who interrupted his MLB career to play in Japan in 2005 and '06.

In the bullpen, Tom Gordon definitely has the job as the closer. Geoff Geary, Ryan Madson, Matt Smith, and Antonio Alfonseca definitely have jobs in the bullpen. Alfonseca, unless he starts bleeding runs for the remainder of the spring, or if the Phillies deal for a reliever like Scott Linebrink, will have the job of setting up in the eighth inning for Gordon. Madson could slide into that role if Alfonseca struggles; otherwise, he will pitch the 7th inning most times. Geoff Geary will pitch mop-up, and fill in the 7th inning when Madson isn't available. Matt Smith will be the lefty-specialist. With six starters, one of whom may be dealt (Jon Lieber) or otherwise used in the bullpen (Eaton), the Phillies have 10 or 11 of 12 pitching spots filled. The one or two remaining spots could be taken by Fabio Castro, Justin Germano, Joe Bisenius, or Brian Sanches.

Current Spring Training Stats
As of 03/18/07
Bisenius 5.3 1.69 1.020
Castro 8.7 9.35 2.413
Germano 8.0 4.50 1.500
Sanches 9.3 6.75 1.827

Germano doesn't have an option left on his contract, so he could be claimed off of waivers if he does not make the 25-man roster out of spring training, so he creates an interesting decision. Do the Phillies package him with Jon Lieber and get a reliever and another player? Do the Phillies put him in the back of the bullpen to pitch mop-up when the starter can't get out of the third inning, or to fill in if injuries plague the rotation?

Castro, who was aquired from the Texas Rangers for pitcher Daniel Haigwood, is a young left-handed pitcher who has a lot of potential, but the Phillies seem intent on grooming him a bit more in AAA. He could be called up if the Phillies are short on starters due to injuries or transactions (e.g. Lieber traded; Germano released or traded; Eaton or Hamels injured) and have to slide Ryan Madson into the rotation. However, that is highly unlikely to occur. Joe Bisenius has had as impressive a spring as Dobbs, and could have actually sealed the deal for himself with one of the open slots in the bullpen, though he won't be used in any type of a pressure situation. Sanches hasn't done much this spring (6.75 ERA), and nor did he do much while with the Phillies last season (5.91 ERA).

With so many possibilities, and uncertainty in the future of some players, the Phillies would be wise to utilize 14 bench players and 11 pitchers instead of 13 and 12, respectively. At first glance, it seems to be suicide to go into the season whittling an already questionable bullpen; however, starters Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, and Brett Myers are proven workhorses. Garcia has pitched 200 or more innings in 7 out of his 8 seasons; Jamie Moyer has done so in 6 straight seasons and 8 out of his last 9; Myers has averaged 206 innings over the last two seasons while emerging as one of the better pitchers in the National League. It's almost guaranteed that the Phillies' starters will get into the 7th inning in 3 out of every 5 starts. Cole Hamels and Adam Eaton, when healthy, are dominant and can also pitch deep into ballgames. Given this, it is almost unnecessary to have to rely so heavily on the bullpen -- someone who will likely be used infrequently.

Utilizing 14 bench players also gives the Phillies increased flexibility. Coste, Dobbs, and Garcia will all be on the 25-man roster, giving them three options at catcher (Rod Barajas, Ruiz, and Coste), three options in the outfield (Werth, Dobbs, Garcia), and a utility infielder (Nunez). Also, the Phillies have both a right-handed pinch-hitting option (Coste), and a left-handed option (Dobbs with Garcia also capable).

Championship teams are balanced on every front, including in the bullpen and on the bench. With the Phillies' checklist half-done, they could find equilibrium by making the bench heavier and the bullpen lighter. Addition by subtraction.