Yes, the twenty first century has indeed taken on a new life of its
own when discussing relief pitchers. Gone are the days of the two
inning save. Extinct are the middle relievers who can possibly pitch
more than one inning. It is considered heresy to suggest that a
closer can enter a game before the ninth inning. Yet in baseball's
haste to insure that no late inning move is left to chance, the deep
and versatile bench is quickly becoming an endangered species.
The 1964 Philadephia Phillies nearly went to the World Series with a
closer named Jack Baldschun who regularly pitched three or four
innings in relief. The 1977 sluggers, widely considered the greatest
team in Phillie history, played the entire campaign with a nine man
pitching staff. Both the 1980 and 1993 World Series clubs had ten man
pitching staffs the entire season and on into the Series.
Yet, somewhere between the mid-90's when offensive numbers suddenly
went through the roof and today, when numbers are slowly returning to
normalcy, the Phillies have gone beyond even an 11 man staff and
insist on carrying 12 pitchers, a whooping 48 percent of the entire
roster. This has not only lead to the sight of a pitcher being forced
to pinch-hit in an extra inning game [Adam Eaton against the Marlins
last week] but has led to demotions of quality bench players like
Chris Coste or Lou Collier, who apparently tired of toiling in the minors and announced his retirement.
In fact, the team was recently faced with a situation that could have
proven quite embarrassing had all the stars been in alignment instead
of slightly off center. The Phils, fresh off an impressive weekend
sweep of the Atlanta Braves returned home to face the Arizona Diamondbacks. The visiting D'backs seemed in control throughout the
game until a three run pinch hit home run by Greg Dobbs brought the
Phightins within a run in the bottom of the ninth.
The Phils eventually put the tying run on third base with two outs and
called on the last player off the bench, catcher Rod Barajas to save
the day. That he flied out was unfortunate for the team, but did save
the Phils from the possibility of running out of position players had
the game gone into extra innings. The use of Barajas had emptied the
bench clean and forced the Phils to face the prospect of using a
pitcher as a position player had the game played on and a Phillie
regular been injured.
This would not have been an issue if the Phils returned to the regular
practice of having six relievers on an eleven man staff instead of the
current seven and twelve. That manager Charlie Manuel seems highly reluctant to call on Rosario, Hernandez or Condrey in anything but a mop-up situation only adds to the maddening situation. Does anyone not think that Chris Coste would have been a more viable option than Rod Barajas to deliver the game tying hit? Yet, because of the teams insistence on carrying seven relievers, Coste seems wasted at Double-A Reading.
Charlie Manuel has been very much the classic case of a walking
contradiction since he inherited the managerial role back in 2005.
Friendly and well liked by his players, he has been the perfect
antidote to the poisoned clubhouse under former manager, Larry Bowa.
The team is a happy one, gets along well and seems beyond the petty
jealousies that haunt other clubs. It certainly does not hurt matters
that star players like Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels are
genuinely good guys who have yet to be overwhelmed with their status
as upper echelon talent.
Under Manuel, the team has become a highly prized offensive machine
and although they still seem to leave far too many runners on base at
critical times, it is still a baseball truism that the best offensive
clubs will always have high left on base numbers simply because they
put more runners on base. The Phillie skipper deserves credit for
Still, if there is one area that he has yet to grasp, and appears
unable to do so, it is in the area of wise use of the bullpen. Even
Manuel's greatest allies would acknowledge his inability to grasp the
nuances of forming a solid and successful relief corps, and frankly,
it would not matter if he had six or seven bullpen hurlers to call on.
Nowhere has the team been hurt worse over the past three seasons under
Manuel than in the bullpen and much of the blame must be placed at the
Oh, history will record that Phillie GM Pat Gillick failed on his
promise to improve the team's pen over the winter either via the trade
or free agency route. The Phils decided against signing closer Joe Borowski due to elbow concerns and he now has 16 saves for the
Cleveland Indians. That was Gillick's decision and it appears now to
have been the wrong one. And it is true that Manuel can make a case
that he is merely doing the best he can with the bullpen provided for
him by the Phillie general manager. Fair enough.
However, an equally compelling case can be made that Manuel's ill-advised reliance on merely a select few relievers that he trusts, like
Geoff Geary, Tom Gordon, Brett Myers and Antonio Alfonseca has not
only A] brought on or amplified the injuries to Myers and Gordon and
B] caused youngsters like Matt Smith, Fabio Castro, Yoel Hernandez,
Clay Condrey and Francisco Rosario to chafe under their irregular use
and lack of consistent work.
This would strongly make the case that another bench player like Coste
would be infinitely more valuable in a late game situation than would
a twelfth pitcher like Condrey who is unlikely to work more than once
a week at most, and that, in a game long since decided. The latest
example was Sunday when the Phils led the Braves 13-3 in the ninth
inning before Manuel felt it safe enough to call on first Condrey and
Another factor supporting the move to replace a relief pitcher with a
bench player is the possibility that when both Myers and Gordon return
the team could well have a very decent and reliable six man relief corp. This is due to the recent success of youngsters Hernandez and lefty Mike Zagurski as well as the continued reliability of Geary, Madson and Alfonseca. It also seems likely that at some point in the near future the team will once again recall the lefty Matt Smith and give him an opportunity to recapture the form that made him a mainstay out of the pen last September.
Should Gordon return to form as a closer, and this is no certainty at
all, there is the strong possibility that Brett Myers could return to
the starting rotation. This is not presently under discussion but
soon might as the team gets closer to the July 31 trading deadline.
Scouts have been regularly attending games that both Jon Lieber and
Freddy Garcia start and it might well be that the Phils could decide
to move one or both of them before the deadline rather than risk the
loss of both of them to free agency over the winter.
In any case, the team would be wise to consider adding a player to
what now seems a skilled but not terribly deep bench. Abraham Nunez
has performed yeoman like work at third base this season and has
reminded everyone who has watched him play of the third baseman who
helped the St. Louis Cardinals to the playoffs in 2005. Outfielder
Jayson Werth has begun to regain the strength in his surgically
repaired wrist and hit three home runs in less than a week recently.
Catcher Rod Barajas has admittedly been an offensive disappointment
but should begin to hit with more authority as he becomes more
familiar with the National League pitchers after many years in the
Junior Circuit. Even rookie outfielder Michael Bourn has earned his
keep recently with several starting assignments and six stolen bases
to go along with his solid defense in left field.
Of course, the star of the Bench Brigade has been lefty swinging
wunderkind Greg Dobbs, formerly of the Seattle Mariners. In a season
where many of Gillick's off-season moves have been questioned, the
signing of Dobbs seems a master stroke and should the sweet swinging
lefty continue to hit with authority he might just earn a starting
berth at third base or in the outfield.
In terms of productivity, this five man group has been as successful
as any in recent Phillie memory but far too often the team has either
run out of bench players in an extra inning game or become reluctant
to use a player too soon for fear of running out of position players
later in the game. It may be only coincidence that the teams record
in extra inning games [1-4] is a poor one but the fact remains that on
more than one occasion the team was forced to call on a pitcher like
Adam Eaton to pinch hit late because the available bench players had
long since been used up.
Nowhere is this story more confusing that in the continuing saga of
Chris Coste. His story is familiar to most Phillie phans. After
nearly 15 years in the minor leagues, Coste became the poster boy for
all late blooming minor league players with his standout rookie
campaign in 2006. Not only did Coste provide solid defensive work at
catcher and third base, but was a stellar offensive presence to the
tune of a .328 batting average and 7 home runs and 32 RBI in a mere 65
Certainly, Chris Coste had every reason to believe his tide had
turned, though the strange songs being sung by Phillie management
whenever his name was mentioned in the spring caused some to wonder
what exactly was going on. The hamstring injury he suffered in March
seemed exactly the reason the team needed to place Coste on the
disabled list, and there he stayed until sent back to the minor
leagues in April.
Truth be told, the move made little sense then and has taken on an
almost comical appearance after an injury to slugger Ryan Howard
forced the Phils hand and forced them to recall the popular Coste to
replace the injured slugging first baseman. Far from disappointing,
Coste began to resemble the clutch hitter of last year with a two-hit
performance last Thursday in an extra inning loss to Florida. The
hits raised his average to .333 but merely set the stage for the
announcement the following day that he was being demoted to Reading in
the Double-A Eastern League with the return of Howard to active duty.
To say that Chris Coste was more than a bit shocked would be an
understatement of the greatest kind and it would surprise no one if
his disgust at once again having to justify his status as a major
league should cause him to demand to be traded or released very soon.
In a league where good hitters are in short supply, it seems
inconceivable that an offensive talent like Coste continues toiling in
the minor leagues.
All the while, the Phils play musical chairs with youngsters like
Rosario, Hernandez and Condrey despite the fact that at least in the
case of Yoel Hernandez the Phils might just have found a reliable
young relief hurler. Hernandez is an interesting story, a 6'2" righty
from Venezuela who has more than a modicum of success in the minor
leagues but had trouble staying healthy every time he seemed on the
cusp of the major leagues.
There were many within the Phillie organization who felt Hernandez had
the ability to make the club out of spring training last year but he
barely missed the cut and then suffered a season ending arm injury in
April and was considered a question mark coming into the '07 campaign. He showed he was healthy in Ottawa and might just pitch himself into
the confidence of Manuel if he continues to display good control and
an ability to deliver ground balls in hitter friendly Citizens Bank
An impressive Hernandez would add even more weight to the theory that
the team would be better served with an 11 man pitching staff and one
more solid versatile player off the bench. It remains to be seen
however if Manuel could ever feel comfortable with this arrangement
because he seems married to the belief that a relief pitcher can only
be effective one inning at a time, though past history reveals this to
In fact, pitchers like Geoff Geary and Ryan Madson were starting
pitchers in the minor leagues and seem fully capable of performing for
two innings at a time on occasion without any loss of effectiveness in
the second inning of work. Manuel's belief is that this would render
the pitcher unable to pitch the following day, and while this may be
true, it seems at least as likely that the more relief pitchers a team
uses in a day, the more likely that at least one of them will be
ineffective and cost the team a potential victory.
Another factor in the defense of the six man bullpen is the fact that
the teams current rotation of Cole Hamels, Fred Garcia, Jon Lieber,
Jamie Moyer and Adam Eaton is performing well for the most part and
has begun to take the team deeper into games with regular consistency.
This would also seem to preclude the need for a seventh arm out of the
As the team begins the long road to recovery from a near disastrous
4-11 start, every player will be needed to help out in what promises
to be a difficult climb over such heavyweights as the Braves, Brewers,
Dodgers and Padres. This assumes that the New York Mets are a near
certainty to make the playoffs and all of the other contenders will be
battling for the three remaining spots in the 2007 version of
Talent wise, the Phils with a healthy Ryan Howard seem a viable bet to
be in the chase, although the team has exhibited enough warts to
insure that nothing will come easy this year. It might well help
insure a more successful finish if the team decided to roll the dice
soon and place their winning bet on the motto...no 7, come 11.
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast