CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies camp this spring has focused primarily on two things: Cole Hamels' left shoulder and Ryan Howard's bat.
The Phils need both of those veterans healthy and productive to have any shot to win.
But there are other issues at Bright House Field. The Phillies had one of the worst bullpens in baseball last season, and they need considerable improvement if they plan to return to the postseason for the first time since 2011. Philadelphia's relief pitchers allowed 36.2 percent of their inherited runners to score, which was the second-worst mark in baseball.
It wasn't just blown saves that crippled the team. It was also repeatedly turning small deficits into large ones.
"I like what I've seen this spring," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said Monday afternoon. "There's good competition across the board. It's wide open."
The Phils have less than two weeks to finalize their seven-man bullpen with Opening Day on March 31 in Texas. Amaro said closer Jonathan Papelbon and left-hander Antonio Bastardo are the only two locks, but that sounds a bit like GM speak because there would be major upsets (think No. 15 Milwaukee over No. 2 Villanova) if left-hander Jake Diekman or right-hander Brad Lincoln did not make the cut.
| "There's depth here to choose from, but they have to perform. They're all battling for jobs. The Rosenbergs, the De Fratuses, the Aumonts -- all these guys. They're still battling for jobs." |
|-- Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. |
Diekman hits 99 mph on the radar gun, had a 2.58 ERA in 45 appearances last season and held left-handers to a miniscule .368 OPS.
"Twenty-nine other teams want that guy," Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure said.
The Phils traded catcher Erik Kratz and Minor League left-hander Rob Rasmussen to the Blue Jays in December for Lincoln. He has a big arm and is out of options, so it is hard to believe he would not make the team considering those things, plus the fact they traded catching depth to acquire him.
Lincoln has allowed six hits, three walks and two unearned runs in 7 2/3 innings this spring. He has struck out six.
"He's pitched OK," Amaro said. "He's up in the zone a little bit. We've got to get him down in the zone, but he has pitched pretty well."
If Papelbon, Bastardo, Diekman and Lincoln make it, that would leave three spots for a host of pitchers remaining in camp. Right-handers Phillippe Aumont, Justin De Fratus and B.J. Rosenberg pitched in the bullpen last season and are on the 40-man roster. Non-roster invitees remaining include left-hander Mario Hollands and right-handers David Buchanan, Shawn Camp, Jeff Manship and Sean O'Sullivan.
Rule 5 Draft pick Kevin Munson had been on the 40-man until Tuesday, when they returned him to the D-backs. He had walked eight batters in seven innings.
Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg has sounded optimistic about setup man Mike Adams' progress following right shoulder surgery in July.
"Adams would be a big lift," Sandberg said.
But Adams will open the season on the disabled list, so he does not fit into the team's immediate plans.
De Fratus (1.80 ERA in five innings) entered camp vowing to throw more strikes and reduce his walks. He averaged 4.8 per nine innings last season. De Fratus has allowed five hits, one run, no walks and struck out five in five appearances this spring. Philadelphia used him frequently in high-leverage situations last year, having him enter a game seven times with the bases loaded, and 22 times with runners in scoring position.
Camp (0.00 ERA in 5 1/3 innings) is intriguing. The 38-year-old has not allowed a run or walk in five appearances. He led the National League in appearances in 2012 with the Cubs, but got released in 2013 after posting a 7.04 ERA in 26 appearances.
"Strike-throwing machine," Phils right-hander A.J. Burnett said of Camp. "He always has been. He just competes. Throws anything for a strike at anytime against lefties or righties. That's the kind of guy you want in the bullpen."
"He's done well," Amaro added. "He gets people out. He's a reliable strike thrower."
De Fratus and Camp are solid candidates for jobs.
Aumont (4.50 ERA in eight innings) entered camp with altered mechanics and an emphasis on throwing more strikes. He averaged 6.1 walks per nine innings last season and 5.8 walks over parts of the past two seasons. Aumont's intrigue comes from his size (he is 6-foot-7) and big arm (his fastball averaged 94 mph last season). He just needs to harness it.
In eight Grapefruit League innings, Aumont has walked four and struck out one.
"He's encouraging because he's throwing more strikes," Amaro said. "He's concentrating on getting the ball over the plate, and he's changed his mechanics a bit. Right now we're just looking for that first step and we'll go from there."
"It doesn't do you any good to walk guys and strike out a lot of guys," McClure said. "[Saturday in two innings against the Red Sox] he went through the meat part of their lineup [Shane Victorino, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz] in 22 pitches, which was very encouraging."
Rosenberg (6.14 ERA in 7 1/3 innings) impressed the Phillies late last season with a strong showing in 16 appearances. He struck out 17 in 16 2/3 innings and held opponents to a .226 batting average, picking up his first big league save in the process. Rosenberg has a big arm -- his fastball averaged 94.7 mph last season -- and has the ability to pitch multiple innings, which has value if the Phils open the season with a four-man rotation.
Buchanan (1.50 ERA in six innings) has impressed Phillies officials and coaches, but it seems more likely he will open the season in the Triple-A rotation. (He remains a candidate to fill Hamels' spot in the rotation until he returns.) The same holds true for O'Sullivan (6.17 ERA in 11 2/3 innings).
That leaves Hollands (1.29 ERA in seven innings) and Manship (2.45 ERA in 11 innings). Their names have been on the tongues of nearly every front-office official and coach this spring.
"Mario Hollands has been outstanding," Amaro said. "He's put himself on the map."
"Hollands has stood out," McClure added.
The 25-year-old spent last season with Class A Clearwater and Double-A Reading. While it would be a mild surprise if the Phils chose somebody with no big league experience over pitchers in camp with big league time, far stranger things have happened. It certainly it is not a stretch to think Hollands could be in the big leagues at some point this season, considering the way he has thoroughly impressed everybody.
Manship could open the season in the bullpen as a long man. He has a 6.42 ERA in 52 big league appearances over parts of five seasons, but the Phillies are hoping something has finally clicked with him.
"He's keeping the ball down," Amaro said. "He's commanding the strike zone. If he continues to do that, he's in the running.
"There's depth here to choose from, but they have to perform. They're all battling for jobs. The Rosenbergs, the De Fratuses, the Aumonts -- all these guys. They're still battling for jobs."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com.