Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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Cost-efficiency and the Phillies' bullpen

We've already spent plenty of time in this space outlining the Phillies' finances over the next few seasons, with particular attention paid toward 2011, when the team already has guaranteed $130.85 million to 15 players. To put that in perspective, the Phillies' total Opening Day payroll in 2008 was under $110 million. Thus far, the team's payroll has coincided with a dramatic increase in revenue sparked by a playoff appearance in 2007, a World Series title in 2008, and record regular season attendance marks in 2008 and 2009.

Cost-efficiency and the Phillies' bullpen

Phils first baseman Ryan Howard takes fielding practice in Clearwater. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)
Phils first baseman Ryan Howard takes fielding practice in Clearwater. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)

We've already spent plenty of time in this space outlining the Phillies' finances over the next few seasons, with particular attention paid toward 2011, when the team already has guaranteed $130.85 million to 15 players. To put that in perspective, the Phillies' total Opening Day payroll in 2008 was under $110 million. Thus far, the team's payroll has coincided with a dramatic increase in revenue sparked by a playoff appearance in 2007, a World Series title in 2008, and record regular season attendance marks in 2008 and 2009.

But at some point, their revenue will level off, and in the absence of any new major streams, the spending must level off as well. Attendance can only increase by so much, since there are only so many seats in the house. And in a sluggish economy, it is hard to imagine the team being able to dramatically increase the rates it charges its various sponsors. This is why the Phillies say they are not the Yankees, or, to a lesser extent, the Red Sox. They do not own their own cable network, as the Yankees do. And their market reach would seem to be far less than that of Boston, where the closest MLB city is more than 200 miles away (the Phillies, by comparison, have three MLB cities under 200 miles away).

So while we may never get to look at the Phillies' books and judge exactly how much cash flow they have, their contention that their resources are limited is a valid one.

What does all of this mean?

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As revenue and payroll levels off, the importance of resource allocation increases. The Phillies were able to eat the contracts of Adam Eaton and Geoff Jenkins without much consequence, because the payroll was increasing and they were still able to add new salary. But with $130.85 million locked up for 15 players in 2011, and $59 million locked up for seven players in 2012 -- Cole Hamels is up for arbitration and Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard are eligible for free agency -- the Phillies are at a point where the most important factor in their sustained success will be the decisions they make in slicing the pie.

Which brings us to the bullpen, which was the focus of our main story today in the Daily News. While the Yankees and the Red Sox both have bigger payrolls than the Phillies, they have also found a way to allocate more of their available dollars to the sport's high-dollar positions -- by developing dependable relievers in their minor league system.

Look at the bullpen the Phillies' faced in the World Series: Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlin, Phil Coke and David Robertson combined for 10 relief appearances. All of them were drafted and developed by the Yankees. None of them made more than $500,000 that season.

Look at the bullpen the Red Sox fielded last season: Jonathon Papelbon, Daniel Bard, Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima -- all drafted or signed as amateur free agents by Boston. Bard, Delcarmen and Okajima combined to make less than $5 million (Papelbon earned $9.35 million as an arb-eligible).

The Phillies, on the other hand, have relied almost exclusively on major league free agents in putting together their bullpens over the past four seasons. During that timespan, only three homegrown relievers have finished the regular season with at least 30 appearances -- Ryan Madson, Brett Myers and Geoff Geary. The Dodgers and Cardinals, by comparison, have produced six such players. The other NL team in the 2009 playoffs, the Rockies, has produced four.

The Phillies have been successful in signing or trading for veteran relievers -- Chan Ho Park, Chad Durbin, and Brad Lidge have all made big impacts -- and they rank fourth in the NL in bullpen ERA over the last four years.

But the Phillies are paying $25.625 million in guaranteed money to six relievers. The Yankees thus far have $24.59 million locked up to six relievers, more than half of which goes to Mariano Rivera. The Red Sox have $15.74 million locked up to seven players.

This is not a knock on the Phillies' strategy.

Back when the Red Sox and Yankees made their respective returns to greatness, both relied heavily on veteran relievers (Keith Foulke, Mike Timlin, Alan Embree, Scott Williamson and Curt Leskanic for the Red Sox in 2004; John Wetteland, Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton and Graeme Lloyd for the Yankees in 1996-97)

And because the Phillies have been able to keep costs low by developing and controlling players like Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels and J.A. Happ, they have been able to spend on the bullpen.

But many of those players are now making salaries in line with the premium nature of their positions.

Because the success of relievers is so volatile, and because their skill set is less refined (a reliever might need command of only two pitches, while most starters need three or four), developing them from within one's own system makes sense.

This spring, the crop of homegrown relievers in spring training is, at the very least, as abundant as it has been over the past couple of years. Lefthander Antonio Bastardo was a starter still looking to develop his slider a year ago. Now, he is fresh off a couple of appearances in the playoffs, as well as a dynamite performance in the Dominican Winter League. He is also being viewed strictly as a reliever for the first time in his career.

Lefthander Sergio Escalona, who converted from starter in 2008, is also competing for a spot, along with Mike Zagurski and Scott Mathieson, both of whom are looking to put injury-plagued pasts behind them.

Righthander B.J. Rosenberg is a hard-throwing reliever out of the University of Louisville who had a good season in the minors last season. He isn't a strong candidate for the Opening Day roster, but could contribute at some point in the not-so-distant future.

And, of course, there is Phillippe Aumont, a big righthander who will start the year as a starter but who many project to someday fill a role in the bullpen.

Bastardo has perhaps the most upside of any of the relievers competing for a spot in spring training. He throws a low-to-mid-90's fastball with good deception, and he showed a ton of poise last year in five starts and three relief appearances (including a big strikeout of Jason Giambi in the playoffs). If he can turn his slider into a consistent second pitch, and if he can show enough command, he could prove to be a huge, cheap boost to the bullpen. Both now, and in the future.

David Murphy Daily News Staff Writer
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