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March 26, 2016

'Bullpen Day' brings about Phillies Opening Day bullpen projection 2.0

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Aaron Nola got his work in early on Saturday, on the other side of a chain linked fence from a hundred or so fans, before his teammates sat down for their lunch in the major league clubhouse across the Carpenter Complex.

Nola threw in a 10 a.m. minor league game – something every other starter has also done at some point this spring – to accommodate manager Pete Mackanin, general manager Matt Klentak and everyone else that will have a say as the Phillies attempt to finalize their 25-man roster.

Saturday afternoon at Bright House Field was unofficially Bullpen Day, with nine different relievers taking the mound for each inning against the Detroit Tigers. The Phils must submit their 25-man roster a week from Easter Sunday and, with 15 healthy relief pitchers still in camp, they still need to cut that number down by more than half.

Following a 6-5 loss, when the nine relievers combined for eight strikeouts and one walk, Mackanin was asked if coming up with the final composition of his bullpen is as difficult as a decision as choosing between Adam Morgan and Vince Velasquez for the fifth starter job.

“Every decision is difficult,” Mackanin said. “We’ve got a handful of guys that we kind of like. The guys that don’t pitch well are going to cut themselves at this point with it coming down to the wire.”

Right-hander Chris Leroux, the final of the nine pitchers to enter the game, is probably the next of those 15 pitchers headed to minor league camp.

He blew a one-run lead in the ninth, when he allowed three of the six batters he faced to reach with two hits and a walk. He has been scored on in three of his five appearances this spring. But both Leroux and Reinier Roibal were never really considered favorites for a spot anyway.

Of the eight others who pitched Saturday, as many as six of them are in contention for the “two or three jobs” Mackanin said are still up for grabs with the Phillies heading into their final week of exhibition games. Let’s take a look to see where everyone stands.

The Locks: Right-handers David Hernandez, Jeanmar Gomez and Dalier Hinojosa and left-hander Brett Oberholtzer.

Hernandez was slow to get going this spring with some soreness in his elbow, but has managed to play catchup in the final three weeks of camp. He was considered the favorite for the closer’s job when camp opened, in part because he was the only free agent the team signed this winter (to a one-year, $3.9 million deal). The fact that he’s healthy now and the owner of that contract (and not getting crushed this spring) makes him as mortal of a lock as there is on the pitching staff.

Oberholtzer was shifted from a starting role to a relief role within the last week, as an easy fix to what was a three-man race for the fifth spot in the rotation. He’s pitched out of the ‘pen before and becomes an obvious long man in the ‘pen. Oberholtzer is out of options and would have to clear waivers before he could be sent to Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

Gomez, offered arbitration and under contract for $1.4 million, has continued to be the durable dependable pitcher he was for the majority of 2015 this spring. He retired three of the four hitters he faced in a scoreless second inning on Saturday.

Hinojosa could very well be Mackanin’s favorite reliever on the roster and a contender for the closer’s job to begin the season. He threw a perfect fifth inning on Saturday, hasn’t allowed a run in six of his seven outings this spring, and has racked up 10 strikeouts while issuing just one walk in nine innings.

“Hinojosa is Hinojosa,” Mackanin said. “I expect him to give out and give you a solid inning every time out, and he’s done it. He gave up the one home run a few appearances ago. That’s thinly thing I could remember him doing, including last year.”

The Former Closers: The Phillies signed Andrew Bailey, Edward Mujica, and Ernesto Frieri to minor league contracts in December and the trio of right-handers has extensive late-inning big league experience on their resumes. But trying to handicap where each stands is near-impossible, or feels like it can alter in the span of a few days.

Bailey, the former two-time All-Star who Mackanin viewed as the latest favorite for the closer’s job less than a week ago, gave up back to back hits, a single and a triple, to begin the fourth inning of Saturday’s game. It was the second straight game he had been scored on after beginning the spring after four straight scoreless outings.

Bailey still hasn’t walked a batter in six innings (while striking out seven), but after each of his last two games, Mackanin mentioned wanting to see better velocity (following a three-run outing Tuesday) and better command (following Saturday’s game).

“I feel like I’m thrown the ball well. the last two outings, the other day – that’s just kind of the way baseball goes,” said Bailey, who was the victim of some bad luck on Tuesday. “Today I just left a fastball up that he hit into the gap. Other than that I feel really good and I’m just worrying about executing pitches and most importantly feeling good the next day.”

Mujica has an out-clause in his contract that he could exercise on Saturday (which would then give the Phillies 48 hours to decide whether to put him on the 25-man roster). He’s had decent results this spring (two earned runs in 7 1/3 innings, five strikeouts and two walks) and could push himself into lock status with a solid showing in the final week.

Frieri, who had been scored on in four of his first five outings this spring, may have had his best game on Saturday: armed with a fastball flirting in the 93-94 MPH range he threw a perfect seventh inning, which ended with him falling on his behind after snaring a line drive hit back toward the mound. In his previous outing, he also threw a scoreless frame and struck out two.

“Maybe now that he feels better in his old delivery things are settling in,” Mackanin said of Frieri. “That was very positive.”

What old delivery?

“(Pitching coach Bob) McClure has been trying to get him to throw more across his body like he used to throw,” Mackanin said. “The last few years they tried to change his mechanics. We’re trying to get him back to where he was before, across his body, create the deception that he use to have. I liked what I saw today.”

Three Holdovers: Right-handers Luis Garcia and Hector Neris and left-hander Elvis Araujo made a combined 144 appearances with the Phillies last season. But, entering the final week of camp, all look more likely to be headed to Lehigh Valley than Cincinnati for the first week of the regular season.

Neris has given up four runs in two separate outings this spring while Luis Garcia has been inconsistent, too: he served up one of the two home runs Justin Upton hit on Saturday. Araujo had a good showing Saturday – striking out two in a perfect third inning – but hasn’t pitched often (twice since March 8) as he fiddles with his mechanics.

“Sometimes my delivery hasn’t worked good,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get it right.”

The Other Lefties: James Russell, Bobby LaFromboise and Daniel Stumpf each has a strong case for a roster spot. Could the Phillies keep as many as three left-handers in their pen (Oberholtzer and two others)?

“It’s a good possibility we might do that,” Mackanin said.

Among the trio of Russell, LaFromboise and Stumpf, Stumpf might be the most likely only because he’s a Rule 5 pick.

If Stumpf did not make the roster, he’d have to be offered back to the Kansas City Royals per Rule 5 rules. So you can certainly make the argument that the Phils uncertain relief corps would only be made worse by jettisoning Stumpf off altogether; if you kept, say LaFromboise instead, and then LaFromboise struggled in April, you couldn’t easily call up Stumpf from Triple-A, while you could make the opposite move if both pitchers remained in the organization.

Russell, who had the designation as the “starter” among the nine relievers who pitched Saturday, got a true back-to-back game experience after throwing in Friday night’s game. He allowed a two-out solo home run to Upton, the third hitter he faced, but has mostly impressed this spring.

“It’s nice,” he said of the group of relievers in camp with big league experience competing for jobs. “It kinds of brings the best out of you. It takes us out of a comfort zone. You’re used to kind of having a job, so it’s nice to have your back up against a wall and you have to fight for something.”

The reality is the Phillies likely have nine pitchers remaining competing for three jobs. Some of the out-clauses in their contracts could come into play. Bailey and Russell, for example, can exercise their own clauses until May 1 and June 1, respectively, while Frieri’s comes on Thursday.

Here is you Opening Day Bullpen Projection, Version 2.0:

Hernandez, Oberholtzer, Gomez, Hinojosa, Mujica, Bailey, Stumpf.