March 16, 2016
CLEARWATER, Fla. – Two weeks from today nearly everyone inside Bright House Field will be tripping over each other in order to get through the exit signs fastest.
Florida is nice in February and March, don’t get any of us wrong, but the monotony of spring training and the toll of being away from home for nearly two months straight can drive anyone a little stir crazy.
Among those folks in uniform, there are still nearly 20 pitchers hoping to leave with the team on March 30 and find their way in the bullpen at Great American Ball Park five days later for the first game of the 2016 regular season.
Yes, that’s an awful lot of folks. There are only seven jobs in the ‘pen (as long as the Phillies begin the season with the traditional 12-man pitching staff, including five starting pitchers).
So who are the favorites for jobs? Are they any locks?
Let’s play a game of “Build the Opening Day Bullpen, version 1.0.” (Editor's note: this does NOT guarantee a version 2.0. But you never know. Stay tuned.)
The bullpen has undergone an extreme makeover since camp opened in 2015: Jonathan Papelbon, Ken Giles, Jake Diekman, and Justin De Fratus are done, Mario Hollands is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
Did you know that Luis Garcia is the longest tenured pitcher on the Phillies roster? Now you do.
So you may not recognize all of these names now or in April. But that’s kind of the point of a rebuild, too. So let’s get to it, and start from the back of the pen and work our way from there.
CLOSER: Andrew Bailey. Yes, when they signed the Paul VI product and Haddon Heights, N.J., native this winter to a minor league contract, you figured it was just like that time they had a 40-year-old Bobby Abreu in camp a couple of years ago, or like the times Luis Castillo and Marcus Giles wore Phillies uniforms in spring training.
But the 31-year-old Bailey, three years removed from his last full-ish big league season, looks like he may finally be back from the shoulder surgery that cost him his last two years. The life on his fastball is back and his secondary stuff (a curveball that made Jose Bautista’s knees buckle last week and a cutter that is coming along nicely, too) are working out for him well this spring.
Bailey hasn’t allowed a run in four games this spring, has allowed just one base runner, has five strikeouts and has not walked a batter. Throw in the mentality he brings as a former two-time All-Star closer – and as a popular veteran young pitchers have flocked to this spring – and it almost feels like this is the no-brainer part of the building the bullpen equation, which is remarkable given what Bailey has gone through in the last 2 1/2 years.
SET-UP MEN: David Hernandez and Edward Mujica. Like Bailey, Mujica (and fellow right-hander Ernesto Frieri) signed minor league contracts over the winter that guaranteed nothing other than a locker stall at big league camp. But like Bailey, Mujica has pitched pretty well this spring (one hit and one walk in four innings, two strikeouts, no runs).
Now. I don’t mean to put too much (any?) stock into spring training numbers, but you can also see how players are getting to those numbers, too. And Mujica still looks like he has the stuff to pitch in a major league bullpen, and possible toward the back of that bullpen like…
David Hernandez. And this is where the bullpen projection two weeks out gets tricky. Hernandez pitched in the Grapefruit League opener on March 1 and then didn’t pitch in a game again until exactly two weeks later, in a minor league game at the Carpenter Complex, when he was giving up one hard hit after another in a 28-pitch outing.
LEFT-HANDEDNESS: Bobby LaFromboise and Brett Oberholtzer. If this spring training is all about competition and the may-the-best-man cliche, as manager Pete Mackanin has said repeatedly in the last month, these two pitchers should be on the Opening Day roster (and, again, if they keep pitching this way for two more weeks).
LaFromboise, a 29-year-old non-roster pitcher in camp, looks like an ideal situational left-hander with the sidewinding angle he throws from and because a recent move to the other side of the rubber has helped him play up that “funk.”
With all of that said, he’ll have to continue to out-pitch Rule 5 lefty Daniel Stumpf in the next two-plus weeks (we’re counting the three exhibition games the Phils play after they leave here, too) because if it’s all even, it would see the Phils would keep Stumpf since they’d otherwise lose him per Rule 5 … rules. For now, LaFromboise has pitched better. And there has already been some evidence of Stumpf’s occasional walk on the wild side … which kind of counteracts his fastball, the best among the lefties in camp.
Oberholtzer gets a job here because it’s a three-man race for the fifth and final rotation spot (with Vince Velasquez and Adam Morgan) and sliding him into the ‘pen is the easiest way to trim that race down to two. Oberholtzer has pitched out of the ‘pen before and it the Phillies use him in a long-man type role, he can slide back into the rotation if needed, too. Oberholtzer is out of options, so if he’s not the man for the fifth starter job, he has to go to the ‘pen, otherwise the Phils have to expose him to waivers before sending him to Triple-A.
MIDDLE MEN: Jeanmar Gomez and Dalier Hinojosa. Every pen needs an arm or two that are flexible and durable, so we’ll call those guys middle men. Not closers, but not situational or traditional long guys, either.
Gomez was in this role last year. He pitched well enough in that role. He was durable. He was offered arbitration and agreed to a $1.4 million contract for 2016. He’s looked just fine this spring. No-brainer for a bullpen spot, barring something crazy happening before April 4.
Hinojosa was once signed out of Cuba by the Boston Red Sox for $4 million. Now this isn’t a reason to keep him around (hell, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez). But effectiveness is, and the same guy who quietly had a 0.78 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 18 games with the Phillies last year is back at it this spring.
Hinojosa hasn’t allowed a run in four games and has struck out seven while walking just one in five innings. He could even be a sleeper candidate to jump into the closer’s role at some point in 2016, but, for now, he’ll return to a role similar to the one he had at the end of last year.