Papelbon & Phillies Bullpen. An Unfixable Mess?

Is Papelbon hurt, or just really bad now? - Rick Yeatts

Only three games into the 2014 season and Phillies fans are already ducking for cover when Ryne Sandberg makes the call to the 'pen.

You know, maybe we ought to give Ryne Sandberg a pass for not using Papelbon in a tie game on the road from here on out.

Jonathan Papelbon was at it again last night in the Phils' series finale against Texas. Paps blew a 3-1 lead, expertly described by Phrozen, resulting in a heart-breaking 4-3 loss to the Rangers in Arlington. In fact, the bullpen blew the final two games of the series, and in the three games total, gave up 7 ER in 7 2/3 innings for an 8.22 ERA.

Certainly, three games of a 162-game season is not enough of a sample size to make any grand pronouncements of the Phils' bullpen. So, let's go ahead and lump in last year's horrifying bullpen stats to help really hammer the point home. The Phillies ranked 14th out of 15 NL teams in bullpen ERA (4.19) last year and blew 16 out of 48 save chances in 2013 (67% success rate) which was 11th in the NL.

Last year, Papelbon blew seven saves and his 80.6 save percentage ranked 29th out of 32 qualifying closers. He also has a 4.46 ERA, 16 saves and eight blown saves in 39 appearances since June 23rd of last year (stat courtesy of MLB.com's Todd Zolecki).

So, an overall view of the Phils' bullpen leads to one clear conclusion.

This thing is still a dumpster fire.

And the more depressing reality is that there isn't anything the manager can do about it.

Two off-seasons ago, the Phillies signed Papelbon to the largest contract ever given to a closer, a four-year, $50 million contract that was lampooned by the media and most Phils fans from the moment he signed it.

The following off-season, Ruben Amaro added free agent set-up man Mike Adams to a two-year, $12 million deal. So far, Adams has pitched just 28 games for the Phillies, and has started off the '14 season on the DL.

Because the Phils sunk at least $62 million ($19 million toward this year's payroll) into two aging, declining late-inning relievers, there wasn't anything left to address any bullpen needs the team had this winter. Aside from trading for Brad Lincoln (who is not a capable late-inning guy), the Phils were relying on Papelbon to rediscover his diminishing fastball and a quick return to health and effectiveness from Adams.

For his part, it seems as though Ryne Sandberg isn't exactly confident Papelbon is going to get it back. When asked if he is concerned if Papelbon's struggles are the continuation of a troubling trend, the Phils' manager said...

"Well, we'll see how it goes."

Hey Jon, I wouldn't exactly hang my hat on that statement, dude.

Papelbon's velocity was down again last night, in the 90-92 mph range, but was also the victim of a little bit of bad luck, as he was quick to note to anyone who would listen.

"The whole inning was kind of just one of those innings," Papelbon said. "You get a cue ball down the third-base line, then you get a double play ball you think is a game-ending double play. It's not. Just one of those innings."

Papelbon, ever the supportive teammate, made sure everyone knew the defense was drawn in on the game-tying Leonys Martin single up the middle that he felt should have been a double-play ball. Papelbon threw up his arms as the ball went up the middle and into center field.

"Mac (pitching coach Bob McClure) had come to the mound for a visit there and said, 'Ok, let's get a ground ball,'" Papelbon said. "My whole focus was getting a ground ball to get a double play to get us out of the inning."

"Obviously, I don't know whether that's called for the bench or called from the middle infielders, but less than two outs I'm thinking ground ball and I'm thinking let's get this double play and go home," Papelbon said. "Obviously, I'm not going to second guess my teammates or my coach. Whatever they decide I've got to run with it and go with it and do my best to do my job. But it's just one of those weird innings, man."

Classic Papelbon. Ripping his teammates and coaches while saying he's not second guessing them. He's clearly mastered the art form.

What Papelbon failed to take any blame for was what happened to the next two hitters. With runners on the corners and one out, Paps walked Donnie Murphy to load the bases (after Martin was allowed to advance to second on defensive indifference, taking away any double-play possibility), and then walked Shin Soo Choo on a full count pitch with a high fastball that never had a chance.

The big question is whether Papelbon is hurt and headed for a surgery of some kind or if his mechanics are all out of whack (he said he was flying open yesterday). As everyone knows, his velocity has been steadily decreasing and, based on this chart by Brooks Baseball (h/t to Crashburn Alley's Bill Baer), his arm slot has been lowering every year since 2011.

Decrease in velocity + lowering arm slot. It's speculation, for sure. But where there's smoke...

Whatever the reasons are, here's the reality. If Papelbon (and Adams) don't figure out how to get hitters out at the end of baseball games this year, the Phillies won't go to the playoffs and they likely won't even finish .500. Other than Antonio Bastardo, who is a wild card in his own right, there is simply no one else in the bullpen who has shown they are reliable enough to trust late in ballgames.

Perhaps the biggest indictment is that the Phillies have largely failed to develop any of their own hard-throwing, young relief pitchers in recent years. Jake Diekman had a great final month last year, but he's more of a LOOGY than anything else. Justin De Fratus doesn't really have the stuff to close. Phillipe Aumont does, but he has no idea where the ball is going.

Ethan Martin could be a late-inning guy, but he is hurt. Brad Lincoln and B.J. Rosenberg don't have enough swing-and-miss potential in their stuff, and Mario Hollands is still just a baby. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is a mess and hurt, and Ken Giles, the Phils' 100-mph guy, impressed this spring but is starting off the season in the low minors.

So, where does Sandberg turn? Even if he does get sick of The Jonathan Papelbon Show, who else would he go to? The only reasonable answer is Bastardo, and if that makes you feel super confident, you've been watching a different Bastardo than I have the last couple years.

It's only three games into a 162-game season. There is still time for the bullpen to turn it around. However, many of these problems are the same ones everyone saw all of last year.

The Phillies made their beds with their high-priced, late-inning arms and their inability to develop the young guys. Now, they are lying in it.

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