State of Phils' bullpen took unexpected turn
Stutes, Bastardo have proven valuable; more talent in system
SEATTLE -- It's the sixth inning in a tied game Saturday at Safeco Field, and Phillies manager Charlie Manuel needs 12 outs from his bullpen.
Before the Phillies designated J.C. Romero for assignment Thursday, before Brad Lidge injured his shoulder in March and before pitchers threw their first bullpen sessions in Clearwater, Fla., in Spring Training, Manuel probably figured those four innings would go to Romero, Jose Contreras, Ryan Madson and Lidge -- four pitchers with more than 33 years of service time in the big leagues.
But plans change. Players step up. Others step down.
Manuel went with Mike Stutes, who opened the season at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, and Antonio Bastardo, who started the season with plenty to prove. They pitched a combined three scoreless innings, with Madson delivering a scoreless ninth, in a 5-1 victory over the Seattle Mariners.
It is hard to imagine where the Phillies would be without Bastardo and Stutes.
Bastardo is 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA in 30 appearances. Lately he has been Madson's setup man. In fact, he has pitched so well the Phillies felt comfortable designating Romero for assignment, leaving Bastardo as the only left-hander in the bullpen. Stutes is 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA in 23 appearances. He has been one of Manuel's most trusted relievers almost from the moment he earned his promotion April 25.
The success of Stutes and Bastardo -- and lately, David Herndon, who has not allowed an earned run in 12 innings since rejoining the team last month -- has short-term and long-term implications for the Phillies. The short-term implications are obvious. Their success improves the club's chances to win its second World Series championship in four years.
Looking further ahead, Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez, Roy Oswalt, Lidge, Madson, Danys Baez, Brian Schneider and Ross Gload are eligible to become free agents following the season. The Phillies could be looking for a new closer, shortstop, left fielder, a replacement for Oswalt and more. Having inexpensive talent in the bullpen will give the Phillies a better chance to re-sign players like Madson and Rollins -- or find their replacements -- because they can allot resources elsewhere.
It will take more than Bastardo, Stutes and Herndon to fill out the bullpen. Fortunately for the Phillies, they have talent just up the road at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, with Michael Schwimer, Phillippe Aumont, Justin De Fratus and Mike Zagurski. Nobody in that group (other than Zagurski) was born before 1985.
But more important than age is big league service time. Players with zero to three years service time typically make close to the league minimum before becoming eligible for salary arbitration. Players cannot become free agents until they have at least six years of service time.
Zagurski entered the season with the most service time, at two years and two days.
"That's one of our strengths, obviously," Phillies assistant general manager Benny Looper said. "That's our depth closest to the Major Leagues. Our depth is in the bullpen. We're excited about some starters we have and some position guys we have, but our relievers seem to be the closest. That's the fun part of being in scouting and player development -- watching them from when they're young, developing and then getting to this level."
Schwimer is 3-0 with a 2.01 ERA in 26 appearances. Zagurski is 2-0 with a 2.42 ERA in 20 appearances. Aumont and De Fratus recently earned promotions to Triple-A. Aumont is 1-5 with a 2.18 ERA this season between Double-A Reading and Lehigh Valley. De Fratus is 4-0 with a 2.48 ERA.
Aumont arrived in the Cliff Lee trade in December 2009. He struggled as a starter last season before returning to the bullpen, and he has rebounded in a major way.
"We run all of our guys in the mile in Spring Training," said Looper, when asked about Aumont. "He bettered his mile by over a minute. I think a lot of it happened during the winter time. Sometimes when we fail or things don't go so good, we end up better. He worked a lot harder to be prepared for Spring Training than he did a year ago. I think that just carried on. I think the commitment and dedication and work ethic that he's put into it is paying off."
Looper said Aumont's velocity is hitting 97 mph this season, which is an improvement. De Fratus' velocity also has been up. He is hitting 96-97 mph after hitting 94-95 mph last season.
"It's just the physical maturity, getting older," Looper said of De Fratus. "And the work he's put in. If you're working under ideal conditions, he probably remains in Triple-A the rest of the year. But you don't always work in ideal conditions. Sometimes it depends on, well, first the need at the Major League level. And secondly, how he's performing right then. We think he's got real good makeup. He's kind of like Stutes. He looks like he's ready to fight you."
Stutes certainly has looked comfortable on the mound. That has surprised him a bit, but he is not getting ahead of himself.
"It's still early," he said. "It's a pretty small sample size. Maybe in a couple months and I'm still pitching like I'm pitching now, it'll be a bigger deal, but right now for the first 20 or so outings, things have gone OK."
Bastardo entered the season without much of a track record of consistency or staying healthy. He has been outstanding all season.
"It's just being on the mound," Bastardo said. "That has helped me a lot. Being around the guys with experience like [Contreras], Danys and J.C., that helped a lot, too. I'm more comfortable when I'm out there."
Bastardo could be one of the most experienced relievers in the bullpen next season. That could be a good thing, if it allows the Phillies to maintain or replace top talent elsewhere.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.