Shoring up bullpen may be key for Phils
Rare flaw for 2009 NL champs a main focus at camp
PHILADEPHIA -- Most of the Spring Training storylines in Clearwater, Fla., seem settled.
The Phillies know their everyday eight will be catcher Carlos Ruiz, first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley, third baseman Placido Polanco, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, left fielder Raul Ibanez, center fielder Shane Victorino and right fielder Jayson Werth. They know their five-man bench is catcher Brian Schneider, infielder Greg Dobbs, outfielder Ben Francisco, outfielder Ross Gload and infielder Juan Castro.
That would leave the fifth starter's job and one bullpen job available when pitchers and catchers report to camp next Wednesday.
But will everybody be healthy and will everybody be effective?
"Health always is a big concern," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "Every year. All the time."
Especially in the bullpen. Lidge and Romero are recovering from offseason surgeries -- Lidge on his elbow and knee, Romero on his elbow. Both are throwing and both are hopeful to be ready come Opening Day, but the Phillies have been conservative in their timetables to return.
If Lidge and Romero can't start the season, there would be three vacancies in the bullpen.
But even if the pair is healthy for the April 5 opener in Washington, the bullpen still seems to be the team's biggest issue entering Spring Training; Hamels' recovery from a disappointing 2009 regular season and postseason is a close second.
Lidge is coming off a terrible year. He went 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA and 11 blown saves in 42 opportunities. His struggles threw the entire bullpen out of whack. Madson had to close at times, which meant everybody else had to change roles, too.
This team is at its best with Lidge the closer and Madson the setup man. Lidge must stabilize the 'pen once more.
Romero's injury essentially forced Happ into the bullpen for the postseason because Scott Eyre was the only left-hander with experience.
And with Eyre now retired, Romero is the only left-hander with experience in the bullpen in 2010. He must stay healthy or the Phillies will have to rely on rookie left-handers Antonio Bastardo and Sergio Escalona.
Lidge's struggles and injuries and Romero's injuries and suspension affected the entire bullpen. The Phillies' bullpen had a 3.91 ERA, which ranked ninth in the league after their relief corps had a league-best 3.19 ERA in 2008. It had a 3.98 ERA in 13 postseason games, but a 5.74 ERA in the World Series against the New York Yankees.
Those numbers must improve if the Phillies expect to become the first National League team to reach three consecutive World Series since the 1942-44 St. Louis Cardinals.
But eyes will be on more than just Lidge and Romero. The Phillies brought in Baez and Contreras to replace veterans Chan Ho Park and Eyre. The Phillies wanted Park back, but when they couldn't agree on a price, they moved on to Baez, who went 4-6 with a 4.02 ERA in 59 appearances last season for the Orioles. He has big shoes to fill. Park went 2-2 with a 2.52 ERA as a reliever last season.
The Phillies think Contreras will be a better fit in the bullpen than in the rotation, much the same way they felt with Park last year. But can he handle it? He made just five relief appearances last season with the Rockies.
There are a lot of ifs. If Lidge is healthy and bounces back, if Romero bounces back and if Baez and Contreras contribute the way the Phillies think they can, the bullpen should be OK and they will have just one job opening. Candidates for that job include Bastardo, Escalona, David Herndon and Scott Mathieson.
If not, things will get a little more interesting this spring.
"Obviously, I wish our health was a little bit better," Amaro said last month. "If we knew that J.C. and Brad and Jamie [Moyer] were going to be 100 percent, that would be my druthers right out of the chute. I think overall, things went OK. We looked to try to improve in a couple different areas. We'll continue to try to improve in some areas. I think we added some depth in our bench. I think we added a quality top-of-the-rotation starter. Overall, I think that our club, if I look at it on paper, I think that our club is as good as it was last year. And hopefully it'll play better."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.