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Friday, April 17, 2009

The Phillies and Lefty Relievers

Last year, the Phillies went into the season with only 1 lefty reliever, J.C. Romero, whom they picked up off Boston's scrap heap the year before. Romero excelled for the Phillies, but during the 2008 season they realized that they would ruin Romero's outstanding left arm if they pitched him all the time.

During the season, the Cubs weren't happy with lefty Scott Eyre, an end-of-the-bullpen 37 year-old whose possibilities for the Cubs apparently were so remote that skipper Lou Pinella never got his first name right. At the time the Phillies acquired Eyre, his ERA was over 7, but he rebounded nicely for the Phillies, went something like 5-0 with an ERA under 4, and did stellar work en route to the World Series.

Unbenknownst to the Phillies, Romero had to attend a hearing in Tampa during the World Series on charges that he had taken a banned substance. Romero made a GNC-type defense, did something dumb, did ingest a banned substance, and is now serving a 50-game suspension. So, going into the season, the Phillies had one lefty reliever on the Major League roster -- Scott Eyre.

During spring training, starter J.A. Happ lost his competition to Chan Ho Park to be the team's #5 starter (in somewhat of a mystery, because Happ pitched well in the pre-season, as did Park, who got lit up in his Phillies' debut). Instead of farming Happ out, they relegated him to the bullpen, where he'll pitch when the starters get lit up early (unfortunately for Happ, Adam Eaton was released in spring training and Kyle Kendrick is pitching for the AAA Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs). So, they had two lefty relievers going into the season, but they weren't sure about Happ's ability to come out of the bullpen, as he had been a starter in college and in the minors.

They waited a bit to make this decision, and, in doing so, lost out on a chance to sign Joe Beimel, who was a workhorse in the Dodgers' bullpen for the past three seasons and who is faring well right now for the Nationals. They also whiffed on Will Ohman, who has excelled in the past for the Cubs and the Braves. Ohman somehow didn't get the three-year, $10 million plus deal that the braniacs in Baseball Prospectus thought he would get and signed a minor-league deal (I apologize for forgetting the name of the team). For what it's worth, Ohman was the premier lefty reliever on the market in the off-season.

Somewhat out of moves, the Phillies traded back-up catcher Ronnie Paulino to the Giants for veteran lefty reliever Jack Taschner, who had gotten lit up in spring training and wouldn't have been mentioned in the same breath with Beimel or Ohman, or even Scott Eyre. Now, in fairness, in the midst of a deep recession the team upped its payroll by almost 30% from last season's. Many teams reduced their payrolls. But still, figuring that the team had spent wisely to improve the roster and try for a repeat, you would have thought they would have spent some incremental extra money to sign a reliever of the caliber of Beimel or Ohman. Sure, you would have had a problem had both Eyre and either Beimel or Ohman pitched well when Romero came back, but presumably you could have traded one for value to an American League team in the hunt. That makes some sense, right?

Last night Jack Taschner relieved and summoned memories of ghosts of Phillies' relievers past by giving up two home runs to the Nationals. Yes, starter Joe Blanton gave up a bomb to Adam Dunn and Chad Durbin also gave up a gopher ball, but giving up two home runs with a chance to keep the game close just wasn't something the Phillies did last year, and championship teams don't do that. It does make you wonder whether the Phillies took a flyer on Taschner just to keep a seat warm for Romero, but after a few good outings the second lefty in the 'pen summoned the reasons why the also-ran Giants decided to part with him.

This situation bears watching. The Phillies jettisoned salaries when they cut Geoff Jenkins and Adam Eaton. They might not have the luxury of being that patient with Jack Taschner, and Phillies' fans hope that they won't regret not signing Ohman or Beimel.


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