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Bullpen threatens to derail Phillies | Philadelphia Inquirer | 04/05/2010

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1270540818 Bullpen threatens to derail Phillies | Philadelphia Inquirer | 04/05/2010 CLEARWATER, Fla. – last season, the Phillies’ bullpen was the one element that delayed the team’s division-clinching celebration and complicated manager Charlie Manuel’s handling of the postseason. Though the roster remains strong and likely better than any other in the National League, the ‘pen remains the team’s primary area of concern.

“The Phillies should be able to run the table in their division, and maybe the National League,” said one NL scout. “But if they have anything to worry about, it’s the bullpen. That is where the most question marks are.”

The success or failure of the relief corps will depend largely on Brad Lidge, much as it did last year. After a perfect 2008, the closer endured a horrific 2009 campaign, blowing 11 save opportunities while going 0-8 with an astronomical 7.21 ERA. when a closer struggles, blown saves are not the only issue; the other relievers have to deal with the uncertainty of their roles.

In an ideal scenario this year, Lidge will handle the ninth and Ryan Madson will be the Phils’ primary eighth-inning setup man. right now, Madson – who blew six saves himself last year while going 5-5 with a 3.26 ERA – will be the closer and free-agent addition Danys Baez will begin in the setup role.

Righthanders Chad Durbin and Jose Contreras will pitch in the middle-to-late innings, and lefty J.C. Romero will be either in the setup role or handle lefthanded batters once he fully recovers from elbow surgery. Lefty Antonio Bastardo will handle that role in the interim. And Rule 5 draftee David Herndon and his sinkerball has made the team. for now.

But everything depends on Lidge, whose problems last year stemmed in large part from pain in his right knee. That forced him to alter his mechanics, which hurt his ability to locate pitches and led to elbow problems. during the off-season, Lidge underwent knee and elbow procedures, and initially claimed to be in much better health this spring. but he was behind schedule from the beginning of spring training and suffered a minor setback Wednesday when he received a cortisone shot for inflammation and soreness in his right elbow.

The soreness is not related to Lidge’s surgery on his elbow, Phillies team physician Michael Ciccotti said. Lidge had surgery on the inner part of his right elbow for tendinitis. the soreness is on the outer part of the elbow and is something Lidge normally has in spring training.

But it has lingered longer than normal this spring. And that can partially explain why Lidge’s velocity remains only in the high 80s.

“We got to a point where it [the velocity on his fastball] was stagnant for a couple weeks and wasn’t going up like it normally should go up in spring training,” Lidge said Wednesday. “My arm strength is good. my slider was coming around. everything else was going the way it was, but velocity was just not going. Rather than projecting on when it will, we just decided to take action into our own hands. get a cortisone shot and, hopefully, that will speed the process up a lot.”

Ciccotti said Lidge’s return could be pushed back to the third week of April. “Because he started a little bit later this year with his throwing because of those two surgeries, that soreness has lingered a little bit longer,” Ciccotti said. “Normally it resolves by the second or third week in March.”

Lidge and Romero were placed on the 15-day disabled list Thursday, retroactive to March 26.

Romero’s health and effectiveness create more questions that will not be answered immediately. one of the best relievers on the 2008 World Series-winning team, Romero was a non-factor last year. the season began with a suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs, and ended with elbow surgery.

Romero is optimistic about his health and hopes to return by mid-April. the Phils hope he is correct because Romero is far more important to this year’s roster than he was to the 2009 version.

“J.C. is doing very well,” Ciccotti said. “He’s progressing along with the reconditioning type of achiness that all the throwers have as they come back from a surgical procedure. He’s doing very well.”

Last season, the Phils had Scott Eyre, an aging but highly effective lefty specialist. when Romero missed most of the season, the Phils had Eyre, at least until he suffered a September elbow injury that diminished the team’s motivation to talk him out of retirement.

Eyre did retire, leaving Romero as the lone experienced lefty reliever. Lefthander Antonio Bastardo has potential and will fill in at least until Romero’s return, but he showed his inexperience during a decent spring training.

The organization is not overly excited at present about Sergio Escalona, who was sent to the minors last month to improve his repertoire and focus. And Mike Zagurski, who is not full recovered from elbow surgery, was sent down, too.

The lack of lefty depth could be an issue for the Phils, though it will be less problematic if Romero rebounds this year. the team is also gambling on Baez and particularly Contreras, and hoping that at least one of them will duplicate the effectiveness of the departed Chan Ho Park.

Park was arguably the Phils’ most valuable reliever last year, a starter past his prime who was able to maximize his stuff is short bursts, and contribute multiple innings.

Contreras has struggled mightily but Dubee said he’s “not ready to jump off any bridges about it yet.”

Manager Charlie Manuel has faith in Contreras. “Once he gets his command down and once he starts getting his split and his breaking ball over the plate, his stuff is big,” Manuel said. “It’s just a matter of getting him there.”

Baez could succeed with the same approach – or they could succumb to the age and injury issues that have interrupted recent seasons for them. while Contreras has struggled, Baez has been effective.

The net effect is that Herndon will make the team.

The Phils have decent organizational bullpen depth, with Scott Mathieson and lefties Zagurski and Escalona among the potential contributors if others falter.

The Phils likely will toy with numerous configurations and react to injuries and ineffectiveness while tinkering through the season.

“I think we’re still taking the same chance that we’ve got,” Manuel said. “If there’s somebody out there that definitely can help us, believe me, I’ll definitely suggest that and try to push for it. but at the same time, usually, this time of year, if you pick somebody up, it’s a gamble.”

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