One of the best parts about Spring Training is the positional competition. In recent years, Phillies fans have gone without this interesting and usually very entertaining aspect of the preseason because the team has had so few question marks about which players would make the Opening Day roster.
But 2013 has changed that. For the first time in a while, the Phillies entered February with uncertainty abound. While the infield and rotation seemed set, the organization was still asking itself many questions: Who would play the corner outfield positions? Who would fill out the bench? Who would be the last members of the bullpen?
A month into the Spring and many aspects of those questions are no longer relevant. The emergence of Domonic Brown, the injury to Delmon Young, and the lack of performance from Darin Ruf have seemingly answered the questions regarding the outfield. On the bench, it’s just a matter of choosing which utility infielders you’d prefer at this point.
While the picture of this team seems much clearer after a month of baseball, there is still a considerable amount of doubt about just how the bullpen will look.
Beyond those four individuals, the bullpen picture is a dark chasm wrought with incertitude. With yesterday’s reassignment of Justin Friend, the Phils currently have eight players vying for three spots in the ‘pen. They are right-handers Phillippe Aumont, Justin De Fratus, Zach Miner and Michael Stutes, and left-handers Jake Diekman, Jeremy Horst, Cesar Jimenez and Raul Valdes.
How the team currently views these players and their chances of making the team is anyone’s guess. Given their recent history, though, one would be inclined to guess that Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee would not carry more than two lefties in the ‘pen. With Bastardo’s spot assured, that leaves room for just one more.
At the outset of Spring Training, the smart money was on Horst to rise up and claim that spot after a superb 2012 in which he allowed four earned runs in 31.1 innings of work. His 2.39 FIP in 2012 suggests that his results were based more on his performance than on luck. However, the spring has not been kind to Horst thus far. In 7+ innings of work, he’s allowed ten hits and eight runs while striking out five.
All three of the other left-handers contending for a spot in the bullpen have pitched better. Diekman and Valdes have notched much more impressive strikeout numbers (13 and 15, respectively, in close to the same number of innings pitched) and Jimenez has yet to allow a run. If the season were to begin today, one could safely eliminate Horst from consideration, despite the goodwill he generated in 2012. As for Jimenez, at 28 years old and with little big league experience, he is probably not considered a legitimate possibility (his 1.2 IP suggest the team is only taking a look at what he’s got right now).
That leaves us with a two-horse race. Like Horst, Valdes impressed last season with a 2.90 ERA and a 10.2 K/9 rate. While Diekman has a big arm–and I fully expect “The Diek” to realize his talent and become a mainstay some day–his results haven’t been quite as good as Valdes’ so far. The experience Valdes has probably gives him the inside track. If a decision needed to be made today, Valdes would be your second lefty.
On the right-hand side of the spectrum, Aumont has to be your frontrunner. Aside from having the best pure stuff of any of the guys in contention, he, too, impressed last season–posting a respectable 3.68 ERA in limited innings and striking out 8.59 hitters per nine. One job is his.
Beyond that, it’s probably safe to eliminate Miner from the competition as he has allowed more runs than innings pitched so far this spring and hasn’t pitched in the bigs since 2009. That leaves the team with Stutes and De Fratus as their other right-handers. That’s where things get hairy. While Stutes hasn’t pitched badly this spring, his 4.50 ERA in six innings hasn’t exactly guaranteed himself a spot in the bullpen either. Plus he’s never been a huge strikeout pitcher. De Fratus has been worse.
If they wanted to, the team could forgo their usual M.O. and run with a more balanced bullpen of four right-handers and three left-handers, with the final bullpen spot going to Diekman, who has struck out 13 in eight innings pitched this spring. While this is atypical, the team has a reliever in Adams who will pitch the eighth no matter which batters are due up. Carrying an extra left-hander would give them the luxury of playing matchups through the middle innings. Although anyone who has watched the Phils in recent history would be skeptical of Manuel’s willingness to take this route.
If the Phillies went with pure performance and disregarded handedness, this is how their bullpen should shake out on Opening Day: Papelbon, Adams, Bastardo, Durbin, Aumont, Valdes and Diekman.
Of course, with just over two weeks to go in Spring Training, this can all change.