When James Russell was penciled in as the starter for Grapefruit League action against the Tigers on Saturday March 26, it became clear manager Pete Mackanin and the Phillies front office had one objective in mind: narrow the bullpen. With all five rotation slots filled, and a majority of the 25-man roster decisions made, the real competition is in the relief pitcher role, with 15 players in camp battling for seven spots.
Four of the seven spots are locked- David Hernandez, Dalier Hinojosa, Jeanmar Gomez, and long man Brett Oberholtzer- leaving eleven pitchers vying for the final three bullpen slots. Of the eleven remaining, few have thrived in spring, while others have showed their need to further hone skills in the minors.
With nine days before opening day, and seven until final 25-man rosters are due, let’s take a look at three pitchers with the best potential to claim the final spots in the ‘pen:
RHP Edward Mujica: 6 gms, 7.1 innings, 0-1, 2.45 ERA
- The 31-year old, non roster invite on a minor league contract, is considered a near lock for a spot following Saturday’s outing. He has performed well this spring, looking to rebound from a 2015 season in which he pitched to a 4.75 ERA in 49 games for Boston and Oakland. Potentially, he could fill the closer’s role, having recorded 37 saves in 41 opportunities for St. Louis in 2013; however, he is better served as a set up man for the Phillies. Mujica would provide experience and veteran leadership to a rebuilding club looking to finish with a respectable record, while continuing to groom their youth. The Phillies must make their decision on Mujica quickly, as he had an out clause that passed at midnight Saturday, when he could request a release if he decided, in which the Phillies would have 48 hours to finalize a decision. Ultimately, his productive past and late inning success give Mujica an edge.
UPDATE: Mujica was released in a surprise move, as he was pitching well through spring.
RHP Ernesto Frieri: 6 gms, 6.2 innings, 0-0, 6.75 ERA
- Also a non roster invite to Clearwater, Frieri is coming off a pair of rough seasons. For the Angels and Pirates in 2014, his ERA was an abysmal 7.34 over 41.2 innings. 2015 went better, with a sub-five ERA for Tampa Bay, appearing in only 22 games. Coming into camp, he had to prove he was worth a shot in the bullpen, thus far, it has not gone well. Like Mujica, Frieri has an out clause, his coming on Thursday when he has the option to elect for release. Being a veteran who’s proven the ability to close and come in clutch, Frieri must prove over his final few games, he is not the same pitcher who has struggled in two consecutive seasons. In the end, Frieri is a risk for the club, but in a year all about youth, he makes the club for middle inning relief to start, but young arms take hold later in the year.
RHP Andrew Bailey: 7 gms, 7.0 innings, 2-1, 5.14 ERA
- Continuing the trend of non roster invitees is Andrew Bailey, the once-dominant closer for the Oakland Athletics early in his career. Last season with the Yankees, the slim sample of 8.2 innings produced a 5.19 ERA, similar to his spring so far. Bailey started this spring pitching well, but in his two most recent innings, he has allowed four runs. Regarded by many as the favorite for the clubs closer job, after the Ken Giles trade left the team without a sure fire end-of-game arm. Unlike Mujica and Frieri, Bailey’s out clause doesn’t take hold until well into the season (May 1), so the Phillies could take that into consideration when finalizing the opening day roster. With the younger pitchers either retaining minor league options, or not ready for the spotlight of “the show,” the Phillies should keep the 31-year old veteran. Along with the roster spot, full expectation is he works from the end of the bullpen, pitching in late inning situations, eventually being named closer.
Honorable mentions: Luis Garcia, James Russell, Hector Neris, Daniel Stumpf
Sure, all these guys are veterans and right handers, but the club simply needs the best available pitchers to take into the long regular season. The best available does not necessarily mean best performers in spring, as spring games come against clubs fielding rosters full of minor leaguers prone to mistakes. Mujica, Frieri, and Bailey have all proven at one point in their career the ability to produce at a high level, specifically from the later innings of the game, which could be crucial to the Phillies who have a rotation full of young arms. They simply need a bullpen that can eat innings, until the younger core of relievers are ready.
Many players with options should begin the season in the minors to continue honing their skills until later in the season, and September call-ups when the Phillies can once again take a deeper look into their future.
The only thing we know for sure at this point is the starting rotation is a lock, with Vince Velasquez Winning the final spot, and that the season is sure to be filled with ups and downs for Phillies fans. Spring season is finishing up, as we gear towards Opening Day vs Cincinnati.