For twenty-five years or so, the Phils have usually had an outstanding closer. Gene Garber. Tug McGraw. Al Holland. Steve Bedrosian won a Cy Young Award here. The Wild Thing, until he met Joe Carter. Ricky Bottalico, before he got hurt. Even Mesa was pulled off the scrap heap to garner the most saves in team history, staving off his predicted and inevitable implosion for a few years. But none of them were as uh-oh, all-over-but-the-cryin', let's-try-to-beat-the-traffic dominating as Wagner. That the Phillies managed to land him for Brandon Duckworth and two minor leaguers may turn out to be a coup up there with Rick Wise for Steve Carlton.
Eighteen blown saves last year. That's eighteen winnable games coughed up by the bullpen. The Phils finished six games behind the Florida Marlins for the wild card. Don't have to be Stephen Hawking to figure out what would have happened had the Phils had Wagner last year. So optimism reigns for 2004. As part of our continuing series, we'll look at the Phillies bullpen, a former weakness, now a strength.
Billy Wagner – LHP
Last year: 1-4, 1.78 ERA, 44 saves in 47 chances. Few pitchers were as intimidating as Wagner with his 100-MPH fastball. 2003 was the best of his eight-year career, as he began to be more of a pitcher than a thrower.
What could go right: Wagner stays injury-free and puts up his usual numbers. The Phillies would be just fine with a typical, average Wagner year, thank you.
What could go wrong: Wagner spends too much time on the disabled list, or the rest of the team completely falls apart and he pulls a Curt Schilling, publicly demanding a trade.
Outlook: Possibly the only concern with Wagner is his health. But he is now four years removed from the elbow injury that cost him the bulk of the 2000 season, and has put up monster numbers the last three. Expect a typical year, and save the Tums for football season.
Tim Worrell – RHP
Last year: When Giants' closer Robb Nen went down for the season with a shoulder injury, career setup man Worrell stepped in and slammed the door, saving 38 games. He did, however, seem to wear down toward the end of the season, posting a 4.73 ERA after the All-Star break.
What could go right: Worrell becomes a solid late-inning bridge to Wagner, filling the void left by Terry Adams and appearing in 70-80 games with an ERA around 3.
What could go wrong: As with any pitcher approaching his 37th birthday, one has to watch for signs of slowing down.
Outlook: Worrell eschewed the opportunity to close for weaker teams to return to setup duties for a contender. He performed admirably in that role for the Cubs and Giants from 2000-2002. There is no reason to believe he won't do the same for the Phillies.
Rheal Cormier – LHP
Last year: What a difference a year makes. As spring training drew to a close in 2003, Cormier, coming off a season in which he put up a 5.25 ERA, had to deal with rumors he might be released with a year left on his contract. Getting tagged for five runs by the Marlins in his first appearance didn't help. But under the tutelage of pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, with whom he had worked successfully in Montreal and Boston, Cormier rebounded with his best season, going 8-0 with a 1.70 ERA. He was actually the Phillies' closer the last few weeks of the season, but the team provided him with little opportunity.
What could go right: He repeats 2003.
What could go wrong: He repeats 2002.
Outlook: To expect the same glittering numbers as last year is unrealistic. With the retirement of Dan Plesac, Cormier will probably be relied upon more to get out dangerous left-handed hitters. He excelled in that capacity last year, holding lefties to a .119 average. If he can keep lefties below .200, his season will probably be considered a success.
Roberto Hernandez – RHP
Last year: For the Braves, Hernandez was up among the league leaders in holds with 19, acting as a setup man for John Smoltz. However, his WHIP (1.73) was nearly identical to Jose Mesa's (1.76), and his ERA was high at 4.35. When he was on, he was untouchable; but when he was off, he got scorched.
What could go right: Hernandez shows the form that netted him 320 career saves, pitching for mostly bad teams. He becomes a reliable horse in the pen, appearing in 60-70 games.
What could go wrong: At 39 years of age, a whole lot. Hernandez is in the twilight of his career, and it is only a matter of time before his skills erode to the point where he is ineffective.
Outlook: The Phillies aren't counting on Hernandez to be a go-to guy, and he will likely be seen mainly in the sixth and seventh innings, filling the role vacated by Carlos Silva. He can still bring it, however, with a fastball in the upper 90s, and is never afraid to go after hitters. His aggressive attitude on the mound will endear him to Phillies fans, but his penchant for putting runners on base (43 walks in 60 innings in 2003) will not.
The remaining two bullpen slots are up for grabs, in one of the few areas where there will be spring training competition. Youngsters Ryan Madson, Eric Junge, Bud Smith and Josh Hancock will be considered, but, as they are all being groomed as starters, may benefit more with regular work in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Veteran Amaury Telemaco may have earned the inside track with his good work last September as a fifth starter and with his experience. Kids with little or no major league experience but who will get a good look this spring include Geoff Geary, Jeremy Wedel, Dan Giese, and waiver-wire pickup Victor Alvarez. Smith and Alvarez are the only southpaws thus far competing for the two spots, which may give them a leg up on the rest. And don't be surprised if the Phils bring in a veteran or two like Scott Sauerbeck, Jose Lima or fan favorite Terry Mulholland to spice up the competition.
Rarely has such a glaring need been so adeptly addressed the way general manager Ed Wade rebuilt the bullpen. With Billy Wagner, we may actually see manager Larry Bowa sitting down during the ninth inning instead of pinballing around the dugout like a Laker Girl on a triple espresso. The trickle-down effect of a solid bullpen cannot be underestimated. Bowa will not have to stretch out a starter or wear out the rest of the pen by constantly warming them up and sitting them down. Not to mention the money we'll all save on antacids.