Phils have spot or two to fill in bullpen
Those competing for fifth starter spot could wind up in relief role
Throughout the 2008 season and going into the new year, the Phillies' bullpen was arguably the most consistent, talented aspect of the ballclub.
Now, after sporting the best ERA in the National League last year, that 'pen faces some questions.
Those questions began to surface on Jan. 6, when left-hander J.C. Romero was suspended for the first 50 games of the '09 season after testing positive for an over-the-counter substance under Major League Baseball's Drug Policy. Romero was coming off a season when he posted a 2.75 ERA in 81 appearances as one of Philadelphia's setup men -- including 7 1/3 shutout innings in the postseason.
Now, the Phillies are left with just one experienced lefty reliever in their bullpen -- Scott Eyre. And recently, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. told Philly.com another one of his lefties, Mike Zagurski, was a bit behind in his rehab from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery and was questionable to be ready by Opening Day.
But with just over three weeks remaining before pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training in Clearwater, Fla., the Phillies still have some options to temporarily address some of their holes in the bullpen.
One option is to fill it from among the four who will compete for the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation -- Chan Ho Park, J.A. Happ, Kyle Kendrick and Carlos Carrasco.
Park, signed this offseason after posting a 2.16 ERA in five starts with the Dodgers in '08, has already said he's skipping out on playing for his native Korea in the World Baseball Classic to focus on being the Phils' fifth starter. Whether he wins that job or not, Park -- who has logged 146 relief innings throughout his 15-year career -- will likely have a spot on the 25-man roster regardless.
But what if Happ, Kendrick and Carrasco don't win that job?
Happ would be a nice addition to the bullpen because, unlike the others, he's a left-hander. But he struggled as a reliever last season, posting a 7.88 ERA in eight innings -- as opposed to a 2.28 ERA in 23 2/3 innings as a starter. And because he's only appeared in nine Major League games, the Phillies would have a tough choice in deciding whether to send him to the Minor Leagues so he can refine his skills as a starter, or get him to make the tough transition to the bullpen.
The Phillies face basically the same problem if Carrasco doesn't win the spot, considering he's only 21 and has appeared in just five games as a reliever in his five years in the Minor Leagues. Kendrick, who went 11-9 with a 5.49 ERA in '08, has pitched 50 of his 51 big league games as a starter.
Amaro also told Philly.com that Adam Eaton, who pitched in 21 games last season and is owed $8.5 million for '09, would not be in the running for a starter's job. The 31-year-old right-hander could be released before Spring Training.
Philadelphia's front office can also look to the free-agent market for a lefty reliever to fill Romero's void.
As of now, the biggest name would be former Dodgers pitcher Joe Beimel, who posted a 2.02 ERA in 49 innings last season. But Beimel would probably come at a heftier price than most other relievers on the market. And with Romero eligible to return June 1, the Phillies -- whose payroll would be in the $130-million range once they finish up with Ryan Howard -- probably won't be spending top dollar for a potential stopgap reliever.
Other cheaper left-handed reliever options in free agency include: Randy Flores, Kent Mercker, Will Ohman, Dennys Reyes, Ricardo Rincon and Ron Villone.
As of now, the surefire candidates for the bullpen heading into Spring Training are closer Brad Lidge, setup man Ryan Madson, Clay Condrey, Chad Durbin and Eyre.
Assuming the Phillies go with 12 pitchers on the 25-man roster, that leaves two spots open for competition -- something Amaro is a big fan of.
"Spring Training is a great time for competition," Amaro said earlier this month. "It's a tough time evaluating guys, but it's a great time to have young players compete, and we'll certainly give people the opportunity to do that.
"There was going to be competition anyway for the fifth spot and competition in the bullpen. There are only a few guys who had locked positions in those areas."
Alden Gonzalez is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.