The Phillies will head into spring training with a diverse collection of veterans and untested talent in the bullpen.
Last week, the Phillies made a trade to bring veteran reliever Arthur Rhodes to town for Jason Michaels. Michaels is expected to challenge for a starting job in Cleveland, while Rhodes will begin the season as the Phillies’ primary setup man.
Any way you slice it, the Phillies benefit – the only question is whether the team stood to benefit more. Several readers found it bothersome that in deals similar to this – a young player for an aging player with big salary – some GMs have been able to wrangle out a prospect or cash. Others thought Rhodes was simply too long of tooth and preferred a younger arm in return.
I haven’t lost sleep because I recite one basic rule: Good pitching doesn’t come cheap. That, and the Phillies really needed a setup man. Michaels, an outfielder who has never been a full-time starter, was not an unreasonable price to pay for Rhodes, a veteran reliever, coming to the Phils from a contending team like the Indians.
Whatever your take, it’s worth acknowledging that GM Pat Gillick has managed to avoid the dreaded long-term, lucrative free agent contract, something the previous GM knew all too well. Rhodes has one year remaining on a contract that will pay him $3.7 million. Tom Gordon, a move the GM had little choice to make after saying no to Billy Wagner’s outrageous demands, represents the only reliever who stands to make good money off the Phillies past 2006. Beside those two - 36 and 38-years old respectively - the Phillies will test a number of younger options with varied experience to fill out the bottom of the bullpen.
With a major push to get Ryan Madson into the starting rotation, the Phillies would have played mix and match with a number of untested arms to begin the season had it not been for the addition of Rhodes. Maybe one or two from a list that includes Aaron Fultz, Julio Santana and Ricardo Rodriguez had a chance to shake into the back end, but there isn't a team in baseball that wants to test unknown pitchers in pressure spots early. In April, managers are still trying to identify strengths and weaknesses and form a clear understanding who can help them and who can’t. In other words, if you think Charlie Manuel can tell after a month of spring training whether Rule 5 selection Chris Booker can handle the seventh inning, think again.
In the meantime, they have Rhodes, a left-hander with proven success to begin 2006 in the setup role. Behind both he and Gordon, Manuel has a cushion to select from number of diverse pitchers to fill out the rest of the bullpen.
Things can change between seasons, but most of the veteran choices are fairly easy. Fultz was an unheralded hero of from last season and earned a well-deserved raise before arbitration. Santana was added via free agency and is likely to earn a spot, though early projections that he could maintain a seventh-inning role seem premature, let alone a spot in the majors. Geoff Geary had a surprise year, posting a 3.74 ERA while used in a similar B-list capacity as Fultz. He stepped up big in several spots. And Rheal Cormier, a hold-over from the Ed Wade era, should improve over 2005 and could be counted on in a situational role, but at this point, he is fighting for his career. It wouldn't surprise me to see his release.
Gordon, Rhodes, Fultz, Santana, Geary and Cormier gives the Phillies three right, three left with an average, crudely-factored ERA of 3.50, pretty good considering Cormier threw up a 5.89. There are better ways to calculate that, but it should give a sense that the pitchers with experience can produce fair results.
Creativity can be used to fill out a final spot or two from a pool of inexperienced talent, with a chance one or two of them can be developed into something more. Chris Booker, a hard-throwing reliever from the Reds organization, must make the 25-man roster or be offered back to the Washington Nationals, who have the rights to the right-hander. Rodriguez could earn a spot, but he’s been used primarily as a starting pitcher during his time in Texas and Cleveland. It seems more likely he will begin the season in Scranton. Robinson Tejeda and Eude Brito, who surprised some fans last season, have decent shots at sticking, but aren’t the sure-bets some think they are to provide capable relief. I give the edge to Tejeda to stick in a mop-up role. In addition, Aquilino Lopez, picked up on waivers last season, figures to get some work, but hasn’t had much consistent success and has only seen limited action with non-contenders. The team may be inclined to take a harder look at Travis Minix, who pitched an entire season of strong relief in the minor leagues. In addition, count hard-throwing closer Yoel Hernandez as a darkhorse to make the club. Right-hander Brian Sanches could also see action this spring.
On tap: Everything you wanted to know about Flash: An audio education from the Phillies’ new closer.