December 27 2006

Up to number five on the list of the biggest decisions of the 2006 season:

#5:  Phillies don't make a move to strengthen the bullpen down the stretch after trading away Cormier and Franklin.

Things happened quickly after the Bell trade.  The biggest deal of the year, Abreu and Lidle to the Yankees, went down just a couple of days later.  Randy Wolf returned from Tommy John surgery.  And seemingly almost as an after-thought, the completion of the cleansing of the no-longer necessary pieces for a team rebuilding, the Phillies dealt away Rheal Cormier and Ryan Franklin for minor leaguers Justin Germano and Zac Stott.

The Phillies were 49-55 the day they traded away Cormier and his 1.59 ERA.  Franklin, who had thrown to a 4.58 ERA with the Phillies, would go about a week later.  It didn't look like it would matter at all.  The Phillies were simply bad, and they had just traded away Bobby Abreu.  At the time, the pen was a strength of the team.

The thing was, the pen had been solid in big part because of Cormier and Franklin, not in spite of them.  And by the end of the year it became perhaps the biggest problem.

By the end of August the Phillies were in a playoff hunt despite hovering around the .500 mark.  On August 29 they beat the Nats 10-6 to improve to 66-65 and found themselves just a half game out in the Wildcard chase in a weak National League. 

Their unlikely push for the playoffs had already begun, starting in mid-August.  They had called in the cavalry and the cavalry turned out to be surprisingly old, a right-handed outfielder who could share time with Dellucci in right in Conine, another option at third in Jose Hernandez, and Jamie Moyer for the rotation.  A left-handed bat off the bench in the person of Randall Simon would arrive in early September.

What they didn't do was make a significant addition to the bullpen.

The Phillies had a couple of big problems with the pen down the stretch as two key pitchers went down with injuries and one was simply unable to get people out.

Tom Gordon had been lights out all year.  He cruised through April, May and June and started July with a sparkling 1.91 ERA.  On July 19 Bobby Abreu hit a two-run double in the top of the ninth off of Trevor Hoffman to put the Phils up 5-4 in San Diego and Flash needed just nine pitches in the bottom of the inning to earn his 22nd save.  His ERA was 2.06.  Two days later he gave up a two runs in an inning and on the 23rd got hit hard again, giving up two runs in an inning for the second time in two appearances.  On the 25th of July he made his longest outing of the year, throwing 41 pitches while allowing an unearned run on three hits and three walks. 

Gordon made four outings without being touched after that but got hit hard on back-to-back outings on August 11 and 12, giving up five runs in 2 2/3 innings.  Gordon wouldn't pitch again for the Phillies until September 7.  On August 21 he was put on the DL with a right shoulder strain.  Gordon would pitch decently in September when he returned, throwing to a 3.60 ERA in ten appearances.

During 2006, the 38-year-old Gordon threw to a 2.06 ERA in his 40 games through July 19 and a 5.85 ERA in his 19 games after July 19.

If Gordon had been lights-out for most of the year, Arthur Rhodes had certainly not.  It was Rhodes who couldn't get through the eighth inning on the game on the 25th of July, forcing Manuel to bring in Gordon for what would be his longest outing of the year.  Rhodes' ERA for the season hit 6.23 after he was charged with a run in 2/3 of an inning on the 25th.  He was good for the Phils in August, however, throwing to a 3.27 ERA in 13 appearances and notching three saves while Gordon was unavailable.  He would appear in just three games for the Phillies in September -- Rhodes strained his elbow in a game against the Marlins on September 9 and would be done for the year.

Perhaps stranger than two older pitchers breaking down at the end of the year was what happened to Ryan Madson.  He simply got shelled in September as part of a small group of pitchers that Manuel felt comfortable using.  In 16 relief appearances Madson threw to a 6.89 ERA. 

Oddly enough, the thing that didn't happen was Fultz or Geary breaking down completely.  As workhorses in the pen Geary was a rock and Fultz made a contribution although in a changed and lessor role.  Geary threw to a 2.04 ERA in 17 2/3 August innings and a 2.20 ERA in 16 1/3 innings in September.  Fultz got shelled in his last three outings in August, allowing eight earned runs in 2 1/3 innings, but followed it up by pitching well in reduced action in September, throwing six scoreless innings over eight appearances.  The six innings Fultz threw in September were the fewest for any month of the season -- he threw at least 11 in every other month.

And there were others.  White and Condrey and Smith and Sanches and Smith.  But it wasn't enough.

The thing is, Cormier and Franklin by themselves would have helped, but they probably wouldn't have been enough, either.  Franklin made it through the season for the Reds, throwing to a 4.60 ERA in August and a 4.70 in seven games in September.  After leaving the Phillies with a 1.59 ERA, Cormier would end the season at 2.44 overall after throwing to a 4.50 ERA with the Reds in 21 games in August and September.

But if even Cormier and Franklin weren't the answer, the Phillies needed help and they just didn't get it.  The back of the Philllies bullpen was old.  It wasn't a sure thing they going to run into problems at the end of the year, but it was certainly a possibility.  The team strengthened itself in a lot of other areas, especially their starting pitching, for their stretch run, but they virtually left their pen alone and it came back to haunt them.

The pen remains the Phillies' weakness today.  Even if you count on another terrific year from a healthy Gordon, the pen is still short.  At Gordon's age the team has to plan for him to miss time with injury or break down at the end of the season.  At the end of last season both he and his fellow grizzled veteran Arthur Rhodes did just that, and the Phillies didn't have enough depth in their pen to bail them out.

This article laments the fact that the Rangers have passed on drafting pitchers like Cole Hamels.

There's a review of the Phillies' 2006 at the team's web site.

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