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Phils bullpen puts the "fun" in fungible

Phils LHP Arthur Rhodes
photo: Rube Waddell

Sometimes, a core sabermetric conceit also happens to align with the wisdom of those who "watch the games"; in these rare and happy instances, there's little to argue about in terms of how ballclubs should deploy their talent. One such notion is that, outside of a handful of elite talents, relief pitchers' performance from one year to the next is a near-total crapshoot. The 2006 Baseball Prospectus annual (and this article on the Cubs) notes that over the last 30 years there has been a 60 percent turnover in top relievers each season. (I feel fairly certain that Ed Wade never absorbed this particular piece of knowledge.)

If this is true amongst that honored group known as the Closers--and it is; just ask Braden Looper, Antonio Alfonseca, LaTroy Hawkins, and most recently Keith Foulke, all former firemen now languishing in less-visible relief work--it's even more descriptive for those bullpen men who rarely if ever appear in save situations. Believe it or not, this isn't yet another TGP story on how the Phillies over-invest in relief pitching (that one's coming next week), but rather a plea to Pat Gillick and Charlie Manuel to realize a home truth about the current seven guys who start each evening chewing sunflower seeds in their warmup jackets: five of them are as disposable as big-league baseball players can be, and you should regard them as such.

Gillick stated earlier this year that he prefers younger starters and older relievers. This actually bothered me at first, because young starters tend to endure steep learning curves and old relievers tend to cost more than their performance merits. But it makes sense in that older relief pitchers, so long as they're in good health, have more of a performance record by which to evaluate them. Through the first ten games, Gillick's two biggest relief acquisitions, Tom Gordon and Arthur Rhodes, have shown the wisdom of this approach. They might be old, but they're getting it done: Gordon has a win and three saves in five appearances with a 1.93 ERA, Rhodes has a 2.45 mark, and both are averaging more than a strikeout per inning.

Then there are the other five guys in the bullpen: Rheal Cormier, Ryan Franklin, Aaron Fultz, Geoff Geary, and Julio Santana. Two of them (Cormier, Franklin) have big contracts; one of them (Santana) has a big fastball; the other two (Fultz, Geary) are coming off big, career-best seasons. And here's what they've done so far:

Cormier 3.1 3 0 0 2 0.90 0.00
Geary 4.2 7 1 0 2 1.71 3.86
Franklin 7.0 6 3 2 2 1.29 5.14
Fultz 7.2 11 2 1 7 1.70 5.87
Santana 5.0 4 4 1 2 1.60 10.80

Now, all the problems that come with evaluating relievers over a full career or even one season are multipled by roughly 16 (since we're about 1/16 through the season) when you look at performance through 10 games. So I'm not saying that any of these guys should see The Turk today, or even two weeks from now. Fultz started 2005 struggling, then suddenly the light went on as the weather warmed up and he turned in a strong year. In 2003, Rheal Cormier was bombed in his first appearance of the season and phans called for his head; he didn't have another multi-run outing until September and turned in one of the best relief years in Phils history.

But the point is that the Phils have options if the recent trend of almost-blown big leads continues. Here are some of them just 90 miles or so up the Pennsylvania Turnpike:

Y. Hernandez 5.0 4 0 0 5 0.80 0.00
R. Cameron 3.0 2 3 0 2 1.67 3.00
B. Sanches 6.0 4 3 0 5 1.17 3.00
C. Condrey 7.1 3 2 0 5 0.68 3.68
T. Minix 4.1 7 0 0 0 1.62 6.23

None of these pitchers are high draft picks, several of them have bounced through multiple organizations, and only Hernandez ever has had any real prospect cachet. But if the success of no-name-populated bullpens like the 2002 Angels or Braves has taught us anything, it's that any relief pitcher can catch lightning in a bottle for one season.

With three young starters, the Phils are going to need a lot of relief innings in 2006. Fortunately, they've got cheap and plentiful options in the bullpen. The late-March decisions to release Ricardo Rodriguez and lift Ryan Franklin from the rotation give me some hope that when the time comes, Gillick and Manuel won't resort to lame justifications for inaction. With these guys, even "the back of the baseball card" doesn't tell a particularly compelling story.