Late-inning relief Phillies' biggest question mark

Not only is team trying to identify new closer, but setup men uncertain as well

February 21st, 2016

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Phillies opened last season with Jonathan Papelbon, Ken Giles and Jake Diekman in the back end of the bullpen.

Fast forward one year. Nobody can say with any certainty who the team's closer will be Opening Day, much less hit the trifecta and name the seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning guys.

"We've talked to half a dozen potential closers for us," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said Sunday afternoon at Bright House Field. "Without naming names, one guy said he would probably be more comfortable as the seventh- or eighth-inning guy. So that tells you right there that might eliminate him."

There figures to be six legitimate candidates to pitch the ninth inning for the Phillies this season. There is right-hander David Hernandez, who signed a one-year, $3.9 million contract in December. There is right-hander Luis Garcia, perhaps the only returnee with closer's stuff. There also are four non-roster invitees with extensive experience closing or pitching in the back end of the bullpen: right-handers Andrew Bailey, Edward Mujica and Ernesto Frieri and left-hander James Russell.

"Some guys want to be in that high-leverage situation," Mackanin said. "They thrive on it. You've seen enough closers. They're kind of an odd duck. They're all a little funny those guys. They have to have a certain type of attitude that gets them through those last three outs."

Mackanin said plenty of factors will go into the decision to name the Phillies' next closer, but Hernandez has an edge to pitch the eighth or ninth because he is the only pitcher on a guaranteed contract.

"It helps," Mackanin said. "It certainly helps. Once again, we're going to evaluate everybody and see how they play here. Not specifically Hernandez, but if somebody doesn't play well, we're going to try to keep the guy who's better. But it certainly helps. It would give him an edge, I would say.

"I certainly won't base everything on how well a guy pitches here. Because we've seen guys have great springs. I always hit great in the spring. I always hit four or five home runs and tore it up and I was a .226 lifetime hitter. So I'm smart enough not to go by that."

But there seems little question the back end of the bullpen is the team's biggest question with the Grapefruit League opener just nine days away.

"We traded Diekman, Giles and Papelbon. There went the seventh, eighth and ninth," Phillies president Andy MacPhail said. "We did that to strengthen every other area, but the good news is it's an area that's very erratic and you can find guys out of nowhere to perform at a high level."