Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Bullpen By Committee Can Work for the Phillies

Game 5 of the World Series between the Tampa Bay Rays and Philadelphia Phillies in Philadelphia

Little did Major League Baseball or the Phillies know when they taped "The Pen" that one of last year's strengths and most reliable contributor would take the opposite turn. As the season heads down the stretch, the team faces uncertainty and is now scrambling to find the right formula. Last season, the bullpen hurlers fell neatly into defined roles and executed with precision.

This does not mean to suggest that they do not have the potential to be a strength or the possibility of getting the situation righted before it is too late, though. Amongst the current negatives and uncertainties, there are also positives and some light at the end of the tunnel.

Obviously, the continuing struggles and resurgence of Brad Lidge is the linchpin. Most everything begins and ends with that topic as it creates a ripple effect through the entire bullpen. The health of JC Romero will be important, particularly with the other key left-hander Scott Eyre attempting to pitch through elbow pain. Chad Durbin does not appear to be 100% healthy and has not been the same dependable middle reliever. And, although Ryan Madson appears to be the preferred option to close currently, his recent biceps tendinitis bears watching. His velocity had been touching 96-97 mph, but has dropped into the 92-94 range.

On the positive side, Brett Myers provides a big boost to the bullpen. Now that he has gotten re-immersed and has been a successful closer in the past, Myers represents a strong option in those pressure situations. Although he has performed well after rehabbing from hip surgery, the Phillies would be wise to not allow him to do too much, too soon in order to avoid a breakdown.

After some previous mixed results, Madson appears to be getting more comfortable in the closer role, but still totes some uncertainty with him to the mound. If Romero comes back and regains his form, he will provide a much needed weapon against lefty hitters, especially with runners in scoring position. Although he faltered the other night, Chan Ho Park has been a force in the pen. He throws hard with good movement and has the type of breaking ball to get big strikeouts in key situations. It would also be remiss to not recognize the consistently good job done by Tyler Walker.

Manuel seems determined to find a way to get Lidge back on track. He correctly understands that what is required to make that happen is mostly in Lidge's mind and psyche. Manuel also sees that this would ultimately put the Phillies in the best position to defend their World Series title and will work hard to nurse Lidge's confidence back.

A closer by committee approach is workable. Myers and Romero have both demonstrated the mental toughness in the past to handle the role. Myers is throwing harder with better command since his return. Madson will need to continue to develop a closer mentality, but may be on the path. Park has the strikeout "stuff" to close. Perhaps if Lidge can string some good set-up outings together and he sees others having success as a closer, he will take some pressure off himself and find the "Lights Out" guy within?

It would also help for Manuel to not be locked into conventional wisdom of the closer role. For instance, last night would have been a perfect opportunity to leave Myers in after a 6-pitch, 1-2-3 8th inning, with Madson in the wings if he encountered trouble. With an expanded bullpen and if Romero is back, he could go with same side match-ups as the hitters dictate. Another option would be to give Lidge opportunities to close a 2 or 3-run lead, but call on Madson or Myers with a more precarious 1-run lead.

The situation is certainly not what the team envisioned or would want, but the good news is that the bullpen has depth. With a little creativity and players stepping up, it has a chance to have a happy ending.

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