Improving bullpen an offseason priority for Phillies
GM Amaro has confidence in closer Papelbon, but finding right auxiliary pieces key
PHILADELPHIA -- Members of the Phillies' front office left the chilly, rainy weather at home this week for the warmth and sun of Clearwater, Fla., where they held their organizational meetings.
There, they continued their search for a pitching coach and strategized a plan of attack before free agency opens five days following the World Series. One area of concern is the bullpen, which ranked 14th in the National League this season with a 4.13 ERA. The only reliever to start and finish the year on the 25-man roster was closer Jonathan Papelbon, and he had his own issues.
"We were counting on some of these young guys to come through, and they didn't," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said last month in Atlanta. "We lost Jeremy Horst, we lost Michael Stutes again, we lost Antonio Bastardo to suspension. Phillippe Aumont didn't perform. We can hope to get some production out of some of the guys -- the Diekmans, the Rosenbergs, the De Fratuses of the world -- but we can't necessarily count on them. We'll look to try to improve in those areas, whether it be via trade or free agency. We have to try to explore all areas."
The Phillies took a risk last offseason and signed free-agent setup man Mike Adams, who had thoracic outlet syndrome surgery last October. He didn't suffer any problems from that in 2013, but instead had right shoulder surgery and finished the season on the disabled list. Philadelphia also signed Chad Durbin to be a middle-innings guy and bring a positive attitude to the bullpen, but released him in May.
Papelbon went 5-1 with a 2.92 ERA and 29 saves in 36 opportunities. But his velocity continued to drop, he ranked 29th out of 32 closers in save percentage (.806) and finished with by far the lowest strikeout rate of his career (8.3 per nine innings, after averaging 11.15 from 2007-12).
Papelbon also spoke critically of the organization, mentioning in July that significant changes would be needed to turn things around. He said at the time -- and again during the final weekend of the season -- that one reason the Red Sox turned around their fortunes was because they made considerable changes.
"I don't have any problems with Papelbon," Amaro said. "He's a competitor. He wants to win. Same thing with Cliff Lee. Cliff just wants to win. That's all any of us want to do. I don't have a problem with any of those quotes.
"I don't have any issues at all with [Papelbon]. I talked with Ryne [Sandberg] about him. He's good with the young guys. Makes them compete. Helps them get prepared. I have no issues with him."
Amaro said he expects Papelbon to be back next season, although he added he is a "little bit" concerned about the veteran right-hander's drop in velocity. Papelbon's fastball averaged 92 mph this season, compared to 93.8 in 2012 and 94.8 in '11. That is concerning, considering the Phillies owe him $26 million over the next two seasons, plus a potential $13 million more in a vesting option for 2016 based on games finished.
"I think he can be [an elite closer] because he's able to get people out," Amaro said. "He's a little bit like a gunslinger. I mean, he's out there throwing strikes and getting people out and I still think he can do it consistently. Obviously, he's thrown harder in the past, but for me, it's about getting people out. If you get people out, I don't care how hard you throw."
Like every offseason, there are numerous free-agent relievers available on the market. But signing free-agent relievers has not been one of the organization's strengths in recent years. It not only needs Papelbon to pitch successfully with potentially lesser stuff -- the Phillies have hinted a hip issue could have cost Papelbon some zip, although he has denied it -- but it needs Adams to bounce back from shoulder surgery, Bastardo to come back following his suspension for performance enhancers and pitchers like Justin De Fratus and Jake Diekman to prove they can pitch consistently.
"None of these guys are slam dunks for next year's roster, but they've at least given us some confidence that we have some depth there," Amaro said. "I'd like to add to that depth. I think it's important for us to add some experience there. How much we can, I don't know, but that is a priority."
Of course, the Phillies have other holes to fill, which means they have to spend wisely. They need a bat. They need a starting pitcher to complete the rotation. They already have $112.5 million committed to eight players next season.
"I really haven't talked to [chief executive officer] David [Montgomery] that much about where we are," Amaro said about the club's 2014 payroll. "Obviously, we had a lot less people coming to the ballpark this year. We have to be cognizant of that. We have been greatly supported -- our payroll was, what, $165 million? That should be enough to put a contender on the field. We didn't do it for a variety of reasons -- some from the decisions that we made, some were because we just didn't have the health that was necessary to have success. We have to make better decisions."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.