The Phillies’ top priority seems to shift weekly from outfield bat to bullpen arm. Charlie wants a bat, Ruben wants an arm.
Fueling the idea to seek out an external bullpen piece is the shaky health situation of the back-end. Ryan Madson, Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge have all spent time on the DL, eventually leaving closer duty to an electric but inexperienced lefty with only 41 innings under his belt prior to 2011.
Some have argued that adding a reliever is unnecessary … that soon the Phillies will have Madson, Lidge, Contreras and Antonio Bastardo to choose from late in the game. But what has gone largely ignored is the chance that Lidge and Contreras will offer very little upon their returns.
Lidge has been up-and-down with his fastball velocity (up now, it seems) and did not make it back at the original timetable. He has never missed this much time in a season, nor has he pitched in the middle innings. Why are so many acting as if it’s a guarantee that 2011 Lidge will be 2008 Lidge, or even 2010 Lidge?
As for Contreras, he was great last year, posting a 9.1 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9. He held the opposition scoreless in his first 12 games this year, but then came the arm troubles. Over his next five outings, Contreras would allow six runs on nine hits in 2.2 innings. His velocity was down, his swinging strike rate was down, and eventually he went down for a second DL stint. Contreras has pitched six innings in the last 70 games.
With the lack of assurance surrounding Lidge and Contreras, the Phillies back-end ultimately becomes Madson, Bastardo, Stutes. The two youngsters have been phenomenal and look to be key cogs for years to come. But Bastardo won’t go the rest of his career without allowing a run, and Stutes will at some point tire. He has had several outings where he had absolutely nothing in the tank, where his fastballs stayed up and his batted balls were pounded. A recent game against St. Louis sticks out.
This is why an external option may be necessary. If Lidge and Contreras sputter when they return, another quality reliever would give the Phillies true back-end depth. If Lidge and Contreras pitch well, another arm would at least push Contreras a step back into Herndon territory, ensuring that debacles like last night don’t take place again.
So, who are some available, realistic names?
We’ve all heard his name, we all know his exploits. Over the last five years, Bell has pitched to a 2.53 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in nearly 350 innings. He racks up the saves, minimizes the blown saves, strikes guys out, limits the free passes, and has a devastating fastball-curveball combination.
Bell is an impending free agent and the Padres have struggled, making him a ripe trade target. But one wonders if it would be right to go after Bell.
What are the pros and cons?
Pro: He’d instantly stand alongside Ryan Madson as the Phillies’ best reliever.
Con: It would cost a significant prospect to obtain him.
Pro: A combo of Madson-Bell-Bastardo would be lethal and unmatched in the game. Not even the Braves have three unhittable late-inning options.
Con: Bell is a free agent after the season and will be courted by many teams, meaning a trade may end up being a half-season rental.
Pro: Acquiring Bell in-season would give the Phillies time to negotiate and get comfortable with Bell in case Madson leaves in free agency.
If you wouldn’t part with one of those pitchers, here is Option 2:
Uehara, you may be unfamiliar with. His name and repertoire have been hidden by the Orioles’ constant futility, but this righthander has been awesome for three consecutive years. Would you believe that, despite Bell’s mighty impressive K/BB numbers, Uehara has a strikeout-to-walk ratio almost twice as good since 2009? Or that his WHIP has been .08 lower than Bell’s? In Uehara’s last 82 innings, he has walked 13 and struck out 105. Those are Halladay-Hamels-Lee numbers.
Since 2009, Uehara leads all major league relievers in K/BB ratio, at 8.08. The next pitcher is at 5.93. And all this in the AL East!
The fact that only 3% of the population knows Uehara makes him a less compelling solution than Bell. But Uehara may be better, and he’ll assuredly be cheaper. At age 36, it is not as if Uehara is a young, team-controlled player. He came over from Japan in 2009, signing a two-year, $10MM contract. Prior to 2011, he re-upped for one-year/$3MM with a vesting option for a second year.
The Phillies would not land Uehara for a nothing player, but they wouldn’t have to part with top-tier talent, either. For the future, Uehara is vastly more signable than Bell. The latter will get a three-year, $30+ million contract this offseason. Uehara might stick around for two years, $9MM.
Perhaps we’ve been looking at the wrong name all along…