Bullpen Needs to Step Up, Help on Way?

Jonathan Papelbon,  Cliff LeeThe Phillies have their three best pitchers on the mound this weekend against the Nationals: Cliff Lee, A.J. Burnett and Cole Hamels.

Ryne Sandberg will hand the ball to the bullpen at some point, and it is possible he will do it with a small lead or deficit. If the Phillies have a lead, will the bullpen hold it? If they’re down a run or two, will they keep it close to give the offense a chance to come back and win?

It has been a crap shoot all season.

The Phillies bullpen has a 4.84 ERA, which is the highest mark in the National League and the fourth-highest mark in baseball. It has allowed 1.45 home runs per nine innings, which is the highest mark in baseball.

Jonathan Papelbon has 10 scoreless appearances since blowing a save April 2 in Texas. What has hurt the bullpen has been the ineffectiveness of the young pitchers the organization thought had turned a corner. It has been the story the past two seasons. Pitchers like B.J. Rosenberg, Justin De Fratus, Phillippe Aumont, Jeremy Horst, etc., have pitched well late in the season, but haven’t followed up on that success. Jake Diekman, who remains in the bullpen, has been hurt by the long ball. He has allowed three homers this year, helping him to a 7.30 ERA.

As a result just three of the seven pitchers in the bullpen (Antonio Bastardo, Diekman and Mario Hollands) are homegrown. The others (Papelbon, Mike Adams, Shawn Camp and Jeff Manship) signed as free agents or Minor League free agents.

A lack of homegrown production from the bullpen is not a new thing. From 2004-13, the Phillies have had 15 different relief pitchers throw 50 or more innings in a season with less than a 3.50 ERA. Just four of those relievers were homegrown: Ryan Madson, Brett Myers, Geoff Geary and Bastardo. The others the Phillies acquired in trades (Billy Wagner and Brad Lidge), signed as free agents (Clay Condrey, Jose Contreras, Chad Durbin, Tom Gordon, Chan Ho Park, J.C. Romero and Papelbon), claimed off waivers (Aaron Fultz) or selected in the Rule 5 Draft (David Herndon).

But Phillies fans looking for outside help shouldn’t hold their breath. If a team has a good relief pitcher there is almost zero chance they will trade him in May. But there are unsigned relievers still out there like Ryan Madson, Kevin Gregg and Joel Hanrahan, although there has been some buzz around baseball Madson might not pitch again.

“We’ve had contact with all of those guys,” Ruben Amaro Jr. said. “We’ll see.”

Double-A right-hander Ken Giles is throwing 100 mph and dominating hitters in the Eastern League. He has allowed eight hits, two earned runs, four walks and has struck out 25 in just 13 innings.

“He consistently throws very hard,” assistant general manager of player personnel Benny Looper said. “But there are a couple things he’s working on. One, commanding the fastball low in the strike zone. He’s throwing too many pitches up, belt high, that are hittable in the big leagues. The other thing is commanding his slider. He’s got to have that second pitch. It’s a good pitch and he’s making improvements with it, but he’s got to have a couple pitches he can go to. If big league hitters are sitting on his fastball and it’s thrown belt high they’re going to catch up with it. He’s making great progress. We love his arm and we love where he’s headed. But he’s where he needs to be right now. At some point we’d consider getting him against more veteran lineups like you’d see in Triple-A. That would happen at some point.”

In the meantime, the current relievers need to perform and the ones sent to Triple-A (Rosenerg, De Fratus and Brad Lincoln) need to show enough consistency to warrant a call back.

“It’s trusting their ability because they all have big league talent,” Amaro said. “It’s a matter of putting it together when it’s time to ring the bell.”

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