Charlie Manuel did not raise the possibility of re-assigning J.A. Happ to the bullpen. To be fair, the manager was asked.
But after offering high praise for Happ after the rookie returned from injury with another strong outing, Manuel did not deny that Happ could improve the greatest threat to the Phillies playoff hopes, their bullpen.
“I like Happ as a starter, always have,” Manuel said, in comments offered too late for most of yesterday’s print editions. “But at the same time, also seeing the way out pitching looks, there would be a chance that he could wind up in the back end of our bullpen if things…if we don’t get some things straightened out, and if (J.C.) Romero don’t come back. I’m not saying we’re going to do that, but we’re going to talk about it if we don’t have no lefty.”
Asked if he could see Happ as a closer, Manuel said: “Yeah, probably. You know one of the big things about Happ is? He's not afraid to throw his secondary pitches. He's really improved a whole lot. He's still got a little ways to go yet, but he has really improved as the season goes along."
Now that Manuel has admitted to considering this move, the questions are: Is moving Happ to the bullpen a wise idea?
If J.C. Romero and his injured forearm return before the end of the year, the point could be moot, though he and Scott Eyre (elbow) will be diminished until they have time to heal. Happ certainly has the ability to succeed as a late-inning lefthander.
That seems a more likely scenario than closing for the 26-year-old, because Eyre and Romero’s injuries have created a void. For the season, Happ has held lefthanders to a .207 batting average.
If Manuel uses Happ as a closer, he could use Jamie Moyer against lefthanders. Moyer. Lefties are batting .245 against Moyer this year, though the 46-year-old lacks the ideal velocity and sharp breaking pitch (like Eyre’s slider) of an ideal situational lefty.
So in terms of performance and mentality, Happ should be able to succeed as a reliever. The only real question is whether he wants that. The easygoing Happ has a wholehearted desire to start, and showed his only flashes of anger this year when his spot in the rotation was threatened.
As an employee of the Phillies, he will surely do what he is told without complaining. But that does not mean he has the fierce longing to close—an important intangible for that job—that, say, Brett Myers has.
That aside, though, it is clear that Brad Lidge is too risky, and the bullpen has too few lefties. The ingredients are there for Happ to fit perfectly as a postseason reliever, before returning to his promising career as a starter next spring.