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On bullpen construction, 40-man rosters and the confusion of national baseball writers

There is a reason the Phillies bullpen was made up the way it was. Here's one man's attempt to educate the baseball "insiders" that don't seem to understand what's going on in Philadelphia.

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This off-season, tanking in baseball was the big topic. ESPN's Buster Olney and Jayson Stark routinely brought up the efforts of rebuilding teams like the Phillies to put together a roster with an eye more towards the future than the present and referred to that construction by using the ugly word "tanking."

Of course, it should be noted, Olney and others all said that, given the current rules of baseball, what the Phils and others were doing made sense. It's what they should be doing. However, even with that acknowledgment, it was clear Olney and the "baseball executives" he spoke to about the issue didn't like what was going on and thought it was bad for the game.

Now, we are four games into the Major League Baseball season. The Phillies are 0-4, and the all four losses have been ugly. But the ugliest part of the team has undoubtedly been the bullpen.

Through four contests, Phillies relievers have the highest ERA in baseball (12.66), the only team with an ERA over 9.20, having given up 10 earned runs in 15 2/3 innings. The 'pen has walked an insane 6.75 batters per nine and opponents are hitting a robust .375 against the unit.

On Thursday's Baseball Tonight podcast, Olney once again brought up the issue of tanking and used the performance and makeup of the Phils' bullpen as proof the Phillies truly are tanking this season.

"There are so many bad teams in the National League, and I do think some teams are tanking," Olney said. "I've thought more and more about it. To me, perhaps the definition or an indicator that some teams may not be doing necessarily everything they can to win is how they construct bullpens. And I look at the Philadelphia Phillies, for example. I've talked about this on the podcast in the past, and I want to make this clear, I'm not criticizing any team under the current rules that basically decided to tank and finish high in the next years' draft because under the current rules that's the best strategy. I think there's going to be an adjustment in the new collective bargaining agreement to deal with that. But I think all you have to do is look at the bullpens."

"For example, you have the Philadelphia Phillies," Olney continued, referencing the early-season issues with manager Pete Mackanin's bullpen. "This team, a big market team, big television contract, I was looking at their bullpen. They traded Ken Giles on December 12 and in their bullpen, despite the fact that they knew they'd need more experience, David Hernandez on a one-year deal, James Russell on a one-year deal and like seven pitchers making minimum wage. When you think back to what the Astros did in 2012, 2013, they handled it a similar way. Other teams as well. That seems to be, to me, an indicator that teams are tanking. They don't spend on pitching."

And Olney isn't the only national writer to say this about the Phils' bullpen.

One would think national baseball writers would be able to dig a little deeper into why the Phillies made the choices they did, but apparently not. So, since we cover this team on a daily basis, we'll help out.

The Phillies off-season plan had nothing to do with payroll concerns. It is true, the Phils can afford to buy whatever they want. They could easily have gone out an signed a couple relief pitchers to two and three-year deals. That probably would have made the 'pen a bit stronger here in 2016, and perhaps the Phillies would be 2-2 instead of 0-4.

But payroll is not the primary concern. Roster flexibility is.

As was so ably pointed out by Crashburn Alley's Corinne Landrey both in her must-read piece and on the latest Felske Files podcast on which she appeared, there is a clear reason why the Phils decided to only bring in relief pitchers who were willing to come on one-year deals.

This coming offseason the list of Rule 5 eligible Phillies prospects includes: Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, Mark Appel, Nick Williams, Andrew Knapp, Dylan Cozens, Carlos Tocci, Ricardo Pinto, Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively, Tom Windle, and more. (If you're curious, Matt Winkelman has a comprehensive list at Phillies Minor Thoughts.) The Phillies may not elect to add all of those players this winter, but each one that they decline to add will be exposed to the Rule 5 draft. Consider that the team may also devote a roster spot to J.P. Crawford this season and it's clear that roster spots are exceedingly valuable to the Phillies at the moment.

For this reason, the importance of roster flexibility to the Phillies cannot be overstated right now. Even though the Phillies currently have boatloads of payroll room, they would have been absolutely foolish to invest multiple years (and the requisite roster spot) in any free agent who wasn't expected to be a significant contributor for the future of the franchise. Free agent relievers virtually never fit the "significant contributor" description with Darren O'Day being the only one at that level last winter. As a result, the Phillies were put in a position where their best play was to fill out their bullpen with players who would require no commitment beyond 2016.

Look at all the names that will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft after this season. It is a staggering number of prospects the Phils are thinking of protecting. And because no one really knows yet which of those prospects will become must-adds to the 40-man roster and which will become expendable, the Phillies couldn't afford to sign even two or three relief pitchers to multi-year Major League contracts.

Any player signed to a multi-year contract means one less spot on the 40-man roster available to a prospect once the 2016 season is over. It is a concern that goes beyond the 162 games being played this year, but is a more important concern for where the Phils are in their rebuilding process.

The Phillies bullpen is not an attempt to lose as many games as possible so the team can get as high a draft pick as possible. It is a recognition that, for every veteran relief pitcher on the roster signed for 2017 and 2018, that is one less spot that could go to a prospect who would otherwise be exposed to the Rule 5 draft after this season.

So, the Phillies brought in David Hernandez on a one-year deal. They brought it former closers looking for a bounce back like Andrew Bailey, Edward Mujica, and Ernesto Frieri. That's why they brought in James Russell and were looking to some of their home-grown arms like Dalier Hinojosa (who was very good last year), Luis Garcia, Jeanmar Gomez and Rule 5 pick Daniel Stumpf to get them through this 2016 season.

The Phillies are also certain to bring more players in, make minor trades, and perhaps even use some minor league starters in the bullpen later in the season if need be. There will be a ton of arms coming through Philadelphia, and some of those will likely stick.

This is where Olney and Heyman miss the mark. Or, if they have thought about this contingency, they haven't verbalized it. And hey, I get it. They don't really care about the Phils' long-term health and goals, they care about the competitive nature of the 2016 season.

So while watching this Phillies bullpen has been brutal so far this season, and it may not get a whole lot better (although one would assume its ERA won't stay in the 12's all season), it isn't tanking. It's prioritizing and, perhaps, a miscalculation that the players they brought in would step up and do the job.

It's also still very early. We're just four games into the season, and there are 158 left for the bullpen to improve. It won't be this bad all year.

That's not to say it isn't going to be rough, though. It's one of the things we baked into the cake heading into 2016. But that doesn't make it any easier to spend three hours watching things implode on a daily basis.

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