Why the Phillies will make all the wrong decisions with middle relief.
You’ve probably noticed my top 25 countdown has stalled out around the point where I should start dropping in middle relievers.
The reason why is there’s no formula to predict middle relief, and I don't believe even the smartest men in baseball understand it either. Few teams make a point to develop the position. But one thing is clear: Many middle relievers develop late, and many of them emerge from nowhere.
Middle relief is undoubtedly the biggest question mark the Phillies face, and I’m nervous to see how they handle it. Because if it were up to me, I’d keep only the best, and that might include a few rookies. I would not allow veterans, even players who were signed as free agents or acquired in trades, like Santana or Rodriguez, to stand in the way of any pitcher I believed could help the team more.
One candidate is Travis Minix. You’ve probably seen the name in the spring box scores but know little about him. Let me start by saying this. Minix would be high on my list of the top prospects in the Phillies system.
Most top prospects lists don’t like older players, but that’s the story of relief pitching. They’re older players. When some of the most lucrative deals this winter went to older relievers, bullpen prospects should not be ignored. Age is the nature of the beast.
Minix might be their best. The right-hander signed as a minor league free agent last year and split time between Reading and Scranton. The 28-year-old castoff from the Tampa Bay organization only put together the best pound-for-pound season of any pitcher in the Phillies minor league system. His ERA has been under 1.75 twice, including last season when he posted a 1.70 ERA in 76 innings, with 68 strikeouts and only 18 walks.
I don’t care how old you are, or what level you’re pitching. If you put up numbers like these, you deserve a pat on the back.
Here’s what I like most about Minix: He’s always been solid. Over his career, he fans 8.3 batters per game on average and surrenders only 0.65 homers per game. Last season, he only allowed about 5.5 hits per game.
These are numbers custom built for Citizen’s Bank Park. These are numbers that deserve heavy consideration for a bullpen spot.
If you have a middle reliever who gives you a 1.70 ERA over an entire season, then impresses you in spring training, it shouldn’t matter what age he is, or how you acquired him, or his pedigree. You get excited, the way you get excited about a position player or starting pitcher who puts up comparable production.
It would be a mistake for the Phillies to underestimate this pitcher, which is precisely what they're doing. So far, Minix has seen 2.1 innings of spring action, well below the other contenders.
Of the veterans, I think Geoff Geary has figured it out. He's at an age, and pitched well enough last season to indicate he's over the hump. As for Aaron Fultz, same thing, but 2005 was likely his career year. Rheal Cormier is a candidate to improve, but age makes it difficult to say.
Middle relief is their weakness
If you've been listing to Todd Zolecki's informative podcasts from Clearwater, he mentioned something Monday that echoes my feelings on the matter. He was asked to sum up spring training thus far, in one word, and instead, went on to list his concerns about the bullpen, namely middle relief.
The bullpen does indeed look very poor when you go down the list. And you wonder whether Arthur Rhodes and Tom Gordon will hold up at the back.
Zolecki also said the rotation will hold its own, going so far as to say the starting five was upgraded with Ryan Madson moving to the rotation and by the offseason addition of Ryan Franklin.
Earlier this winter, when Bobby Abreu's name was tossed around in trade rumors, I said I would support a deal that would land a No. 3-4 starter and quality reliever. I fear that by midseason, the Phillies will wish they would have pursued something like this.
It’s time for the Phillies to break away from the Ed Wade school of relief pitching. Let’s get serious about it. Let’s develop our own solutions from within and not turn a blind eye toward players who can help you.