Battle Continues For Bullpen Jobs

Spring training is the time for position battles. The Phillies headed to Florida with most of their roster set, but the main competition has been for the final two spots in the bullpen. There were a number of question marks about some of the competitors coming into camp and while some of those questions still remain, the competition has been strong and should make for some interesting choices.

While Veterans Stadium will be Philadelphia's biggest implosion of 2004, the Phillies bullpen was the biggest implosion of 2003. While they started strong, the rag-tag group of relievers assembled by the Phillies for last season started to fall apart as time wore on. Not wanting a repeat, GM Ed Wade set out to completely revamp the bullpen. With that in mind, only Rheal Cormier was guaranteed a spot in the 2004 edition of Phillies relievers. Quickly, the Phillies traded for Billy Wagner and added Roberto Hernandez and Tim Worrell as free agents. With spots for six relievers, the Phillies had four filled coming into camp.

To fill the final two spots, the Phillies hoped for some good news from within the organization. First, was Amaury Telemaco. The veteran right-hander pitched well when the Phillies brought him up from AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre last season and it appeared that his injury problems were behind him. Larry Bowa broke out a sharp pencil and put Telemaco's name into one of the two spots, just making sure that he also had a good eraser on that pencil just in case.

Since the Phillies organization is filled with young pitching prospects, the Phillies also figured that a couple young arms would be in the mix. That's where Ryan Madson, Eric Junge and Josh Hancock came into play. All three had at least a little major league exposure although Madson had pitched just two innings. Junge and Hancock both appeared ready for major league action and would be in the mix. While Geoff Geary and Jeremy Wedel were going to get looks in camp, neither really figured to be quite as good of an answer as the other young relievers.

The biggest question was the return of the walking wounded. David Coggin and Bud Smith were both coming off injuries and the Phillies didn't really know what to expect from either of them this spring. The theory was that both of them were ready to return to full-time pitching jobs, but nobody was completely sure. Coggin had been a top Phillies prospect, but surgery had sidelined him for the second time in his young career and made him a big question mark. Smith had come to the Phillies in the Scott Rolen trade and the Phillies were disappointed when he came up with a sore arm. Getting him back on solid ground would make the Rolen trade look at least a little better since the Phillies had spoken highly of his potential as part of the trade.

The competition this spring has been fun to watch. Larry Bowa is a little less concerned about finding that eraser after Telemaco has allowed just one earned run in 8.1 innings of work. If there has been any erasing to be done where Telemaco is concerned, it was just to erase his name so it could be rewritten in ink. Telemaco's climb back to the majors is a great story. He too had been sidelined by injuries and it looked like his career might be over. Suddenly, he was not only back and pitching, but was pitching well in the minors. Telemaco was content to take his time and prove himself all over again. The plan worked and now, Telemaco is sound physically and has made it back.

Of the young pitchers, Wedel has pitched in just one game. Geary has appeared in eight games and while he has allowed 12 hits in 8 innings, he has held his ERA to just 2.25 this spring. While he has looked decent, he hasn't really pitched well enough to put himself into the mix, considering that giving up a hit and a half per inning isn't what the Phillies are looking for. Offseason surgery took Junge out of the competition and he is still working his way back and hasn't pitched in a game. Hancock has 7 innings and has been pretty impressive. He has allowed just 4 hits and has 8 strikeouts. His only blemish has been the one homerun that he allowed, giving him a 1.29 ERA. Ryan Madson has continued his impressive work, allowing 5 hits in 6.1 innings while striking out 6 batters. His ERA stands at 2.84 this spring. It looks like the Phillies have basically decided that they are better served to send Madson back to AAA and use him as an emergency starter should something happen with one of the members of the Phillies rotation. That means that only Josh Hancock would seem to have any sort of shot at filling the final spot in the Phillies bullpen from the collection of young pitchers.

Then, there are the wounded. Both David Coggin and Bud Smith have battled well this spring with Coggin showing himself to be especially impressive. After two surgeries, Coggin hasn't allowed a run in 9 innings and has only allowed 5 baserunners – 3 hits and 2 walks – in his outings. Coggin has also struck out six hitters. The only minor concern is how Coggin and his surgically repaired weapon will hold up to the rigors of being a relief pitcher. The theory is that he should be okay, but that theory still needs to be proven. The Phillies figure to give Coggin a fairly heavy work load through the last couple weeks of camp to see how he responds. While Coggin doesn't have the mid 90s fastball that he had as a prospect, he has enough velocity to get by and has learned to be a different type of pitcher while still being effective. He was throwing in the high 80s when camp opened, but his velocity has picked up by a couple miles per hour and he believes he may be able to put a little more on his fastball as he continues to develop more strength in his arm.

The news on Bud Smith is good, but not as good as with Coggin. Basically, the fact that Smith is pitching pain free is good enough news. The left-hander isn't back to where he was before his injury, but he's at least on the right road. In 2 games this spring, Smith has a 7.36 ERA in 3.2 innings of work. Again, the fact that he is pitching and hasn't had any pain is a big plus for Smith and the Phillies. The stats also haven't knocked Smith out of the competition since he is a lefty.

The decision gets more complicated by the fact that Smith and Coggin are both out of options, meaning that the Phillies can't send either of them back to AAA without risking losing them to a waiver claim. It's hard to know if a team would claim either of them, but the smart money is that Coggin would definitely be claimed. Because he is a little behind Coggin in returning from injury, Smith might sneak through waivers if the Phillies tried to push him through. Just for the record, Telemaco is also out of options, but that doesn't seem to be an issue at this point. Both Wade and Bowa have said that they will take the 25 best players with the club and will expose players to waivers if necessary. Still, if they can avoid losing a pitcher on waivers, they'll certainly take that route.

The only other option for the bullpen is Victor Alvarez, a former Los Angeles Dodger. He gets mentioned only because he's a left-hander and besides closer Billy Wagner, Rheal Cormier is the only lefty on the staff. Having another lefty would give Bowa the option to get better matchups in some circumstances. The Phillies haven't taken much of a look at Alvarez this spring, using him for just two-thirds of an inning, resulting in a 13.43 ERA. Don't figure on seeing Alvarez in a Phillies uniform anytime soon.

Coggin is the real legitimate choice for the final spot in the pen. Don't discount the left-hander factor, meaning that Smith may get more of a chance to prove himself along the way. Also, don't count out a deal or two that could send at least one of the pitchers who are out of options elsewhere. If the Phillies can make a move and get a player that fits somewhere in the organization, that's a better alternative than simply losing either Coggin or Smith to a waiver claim. Odds are though that the competition is still pretty far from over and the Phillies will take their time to see how things play out as we enter the final two weeks of spring training.

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