Analysis

Struggles of Phillies 2018 bullpen make you appreciate dominance of 2008



4dc771996a434cb8b8974dc81b3f4850.jpgAfter getting a scoreless seventh inning from Hector Neris Monday, Philadelphia Phillies manager Gabe Kapler turned to Adam Morgan to attempt to keep the Phillies within one run of the New York Yankees. Instead of doing that, Morgan surrendered two runs without recording an out. Those two runs proved to be crucial, as the Phillies ultimately lost the opening game of a three-game set with the Yankees 4-2.

All things considered, it wasn’t even one of the worst nights that the Phillies bullpen has had this season. Sure, Morgan was ineffective when called upon, but Neris turned in one of his best performances of the season in his return from Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Yacksel Rios and Austin Davis both pitched scoreless innings. It was actually an improvement from their Sunday Night Baseball meltdown against the Washington Nationals the previous night, when Davis, Edubray Ramos, Victor Arano and Seranthony Dominguez combined to allow six earned runs in three innings, blowing a four-run lead and chance to sweep a divisional rival.

Perhaps the funny (not in a haha way) thing is this is the second consecutive season where on paper, Matt Klentak set the Phillies up to have a very good bullpen. And it’s the second consecutive season that the bullpen has fallen flat on its face in the first half of the season. Consider this: the aforementioned Morgan is the only reliever who was on the Phillies Opening Day roster that hasn’t spent time at Triple-A or on the DL this season. (And that doesn’t even count Tommy Hunter and Mark Leiter Jr., who opened the season on the DL.)

Brad Lidge, the team’s closer during the 2008 World Series championship season, served as a guest instructor in Spring Training prior to the 2017 season. He told MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki at that time that he believed the 2017 Phillies had more good arms than the 2008 team. Pat Neshek did prove to be the team’s lone All-Star in 2017 – and as a whole, the group was pretty productive in the second-half of the season – but the group struggled to nail down games in the first-half of the season. There’s perhaps no better example of this than the fact that Jeanmar Gomez, the team’s Opening Day closer, was released in late June with a 7.25 ERA.

Bullpens are as inexact of a science as there is in sports. Though his 2.36 FIP and .373 opponent’s BABIP suggest he’s been unlucky, Hunter’s two-year/$18 million deal certainly doesn’t look good right now. Neshek, who returned to the Phillies on a two-year/$16.2 million deal this offseason, hasn’t pitched in a game this season. After posting a 2.48 ERA in the second half of the 2017 season, Neris was in Triple-A, until an injury to Ramos forced the Phillies to recall the 29-year-old.

There’s two ways to look at this: on one hand, the 2018 Phillies bullpen (at least thus far) has been a pretty clear demonstration of just about how much can go wrong with a bullpen. But it also makes you appreciate just how much has to go right to have a dominant bullpen, as the Phillies did in 2008.

Brad Lidge, of course, turned in the greatest season that a Phillies reliever ever had in 2008. Between the regular season and postseason, Lidge went 48-48 in saves, closing out the clinching games of the National League East, NLDS, NLCS and World Series.

The lone remaining active member of that bullpen is Ryan Madson, who has had one of the more interesting career arcs of any player connected to the Phillies. As part of “the bridge-to-Lidge,” Madson posted a 1.3 fWAR in 2008.

Those two are the obvious names. Pat Gillick parted with a package that included Michael Bourn – who made two All-Star teams with the Houston Astros – to acquire Lidge. Madson was a converted starter that was in the organization prior to Gillick’s arrival. The more obscure pickups are what allowed the Phillies to form a dominant bullpen in 2008.

After being released by the Boston Red Sox in June of 2007, Gillick signed J.C. Romero. Romero would post a 1.24 ERA in 51 games for Charlie Manuel’s 2007 squad, who became the first Phillies team to make the playoffs since 1993. In 2008, he appeared in 81 games and posted a 2.75 ERA. He was lights out in the postseason, posting a 0.00 ERA and recording three holds in eight postseason appearances.

Chad Durbin posted a 4.72 ERA in 36 games (19 of which were starts) for the Detroit Tigers in 2007. His career was very much at a crossroads when Adam Eaton edged him out to make an Opening Day rotation spot, but it actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In 71 games as a reliever for the Phillies in 2008, Durbin posted a career-low 2.87 ERA. He went from being unable to edge out Eaton – who the Phillies would pay $9 million not to pitch for them in 2009 – to being a crucial member of the team’s bullpen.

Rudy Seanez, who was surprisingly released by the Los Angeles Dodgers just prior to the 2008 season beginning, latched on with the Phillies for what turned out to be the final season of his 17-year career. The righty proved to be another stable arm in the bullpen, posting a 3.53 ERA in his age-39 season.

Even for as thankless of a position as long-man is on a contending team, Clay Condrey posted a 3.26 ERA in 69.0 innings in 2008.

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The icing on the cake to the Phillies bullpen in 2008 came on Aug. 7, 2008, when the Phillies acquired Scott Eyre from the Chicago Cubs. Eyre, 36, was allowed to be traded in August after he cleared waivers. Gillick traded Brian Schlitter – who would go on to post a 5.40 ERA in parts of three seasons with the Cubs – for Eyre, who had a 7.15 ERA in 19 games for the Cubs in 2008. It proved to be a stroke of genius, as he would post a 1.88 ERA in 14.1 innings for the Phillies.

The 2008 Phillies possessed an extremely deep lineup – Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, Jayson Werth, Pat Burrell and Shane Victorino. They weren’t, however, deep in starting pitching. Sure, Cole Hamels came of age in the postseason and won the World Series MVP. But when you consider the Phillies would employ Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt in future seasons, a rotation with Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton wasn’t overly deep as the team competed for the World Series. But in many respects, an elite bullpen allowed the Phillies to overcome that.

But the 2008 bullpen wasn’t one that on paper that looked as though it could help propel the Phillies to a World Series. In many ways, the success of the bullpen could be a testament to Pat Gillick’s genius as an executive – there’s a reason he’s in the Hall of Fame. But even that feels lazy. Even in Gillick’s best-case scenario, Lidge wouldn’t have been perfect in 2008. The Durbin and Eyre signings wouldn’t have turned to gold. Gillick deserves credit for the transactions he made because they worked. It’s certainly not like some of his other chances – Werth, Greg Dobbs, Matt Stairs – didn’t turn out similarly. But it also speaks to the inexact science that building a bullpen is, and frankly, the luck it takes to have a bullpen come together for a contending team. It makes you appreciate just how much has to go right for a bullpen to be successful.

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