It’s a wonder the Phillies' bullpen kept it together as much as they did in 2006. The club didn’t exactly follow the blueprint on how to construct a major league bullpen. Whatever that might be.
The Phillies have a knack for treating their bullpen like pitcher purgatory, when it should be an area of supreme importance. They’re also resistant to change. Players like Rheal Cormier comfortably last for years. Others, like Arthur Rhodes, are blindly handed a role they are incapable of handling, just because of past success.
The season might have unfolded differently with a better, healthier pen, among other things. They finished September without an established setup man and healthy closer, and went the entire year without a long man, which would have been a tremendous help specifically during the earlier part of the season. They also traded away two relievers during mid-season and essentially replaced them with a waiver claim and rookie Matt Smith (this part actually worked). They also occupied one spot to secure Rule 5 player Fabio Castro, who was rarely used.
Spring Training is where relief pitching should be sorted among a long list of candidates, but it often seems the Phillies box themselves in with veteran players. They don’t take many chances, and they never play the hot hand. As a result, they never grow.
This season, the field figures to be pretty open, with more opportunity for risky thinking whether they like it or not. This is very different from last spring, when pitchers were competing for no more than one open spot, which predictably went to Geoff Geary, who unexpectedly turned into their best reliever. The final slot was reserved for the loser of the fifth starter position, ultimately, Ryan Franklin. The real competition was in the starting rotation between Ryan Madson, Gavin Floyd and Franklin. Even pitchers like Ricardo Rodriguez, Eude Brito, Robinson Tejeda were given a look, none of whom broke camp.
This spring, the circumstances will be different, especially if they resign Randy Wolf to shore up the entire rotation. That means all focus will be on the bullpen, where only three relievers - Geary, Smith and closer Tom Gordon – figure to be safe bets to break camp.
You’ll note the omission of Madson from this list. This is how the Phillies should regard the right-hander’s status following a season that saw a 5.69 ERA, including a 6.89 ERA in September. Madson should be competing for a job with Clay Condrey, Brian Sanches, Brian Mazone, Castro, Zach Segovia or anyone else who’s brought into camp to compete for a job on the 25-man roster. Yesterday, we discussed the possibility of adding minor league free agents off clubs with deep systems or strong bullpens. In a way, they would be seeking players like Matt Smith, an older prospect blocked from a job in the bigs.
Deciding between a "safe" approach and a "risky" one is what Aaron Fultz’s pending situation is all about. The 33-year-old left-hander becomes a free agent after the World Series. He has pitched two good-not-great seasons in relief for the Phils, but slipped a little in 2006 (3-1, 4.54 ERA, .288 BAA). By all accounts, he’s an average pitcher of slightly above-average age and skill. He even had an average pitching injury last season with a dead arm that kept him out for a couple of games.
Fultz represents all-things "safe" when it comes to the Phillies, but "safe" didn’t exactly work this season. It was a better year for "risk."