Room to be creative with bullpen

Lefty Antonio Bastardo might play a bigger role come spring. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Earlier in the week, we discussed the bigger picture effect of the Cliff Lee signing on the Phillies franchise. On the field, beyond the simple fact that the Phillies now have the finest rotation in the majors, Lee's signing has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the roster.

In the last few decades, bullpens have naturally expanded as starters pitch fewer innings and, in the National League, settled upon seven relievers as the standard. Middle relievers have become commodities on the open market -- this off-season, teams have handed out an astounding 11 multi-year contracts to relievers.

But with the current construction of the Phillies' staff, the bullpen is de-emphasized. The guys over at The Good Phight did a quick and dirty analysis based on 2010 innings averages that concluded Phillies starting pitchers could be expected to average 6.87 innings per start in 2011. Again, that assumes health and maintaining stamina from 2010.

In 2010, the Phillies' bullpen already logged a league-low 421 innings. The addition of Lee and assuming a fifth starter that can pitch to the league average of IP/S (5.91) would yield a bullpen expectation of 344 1/3 innings in 2011.

Now, let's assume that those assumptions are a bit extreme. Why? Consider this: No bullpen has pitched that few innings in a non-strike-shortened season since 1988 when the Mets (341 2/3 IP) and Rangers (333 1/3) both did it.

The last Phillies bullpen to pitch fewer than 344 1/3 innings in the bullpen? That would be the 1959 Phillies, who had 54 complete games from their starters -- and relievers threw 342 2/3 innings.

So let's expand our range even further. We'll settle at 400 IP by relievers -- almost 60 innings above the rough estimate. The last team's bullpen to pitch fewer than 400 innings? The 2005 Cardinals, whose relievers threw 397 2/3 innings. And since 2000, only two other bullpens pitched fewer than 400 innings (2003 Yankees and 2002 Diamondbacks).

What's special about those teams? Well they each won at least 98 games in those seasons. Both the Cardinals and Yankees broke the 100-win barrier.

So yes, obviously we are talking about something special here. Having four aces allows the Phillies to be creative with their bullpen construction.

Under no circumstances should the Phillies break camp with more than 11 pitchers on the staff. Given the numbers we discussed, you could probably make a coherent argument that 11 is still too many, but for various reasons, we'll stick with 11 rather than 10.

There are four relievers under contract and locks for 2011 already. They are Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, Jose Contreras and Danys Baez. That's $21.25 million in 2011 dollars committed to the bullpen.

They should not sign anyone else to fill the final two spots.

"We're still trying to figure it out," Phillies assistant GM Scott Proefrock said earlier in the week.

Sure, Dennys Reyes at $1.1 million would have been a very low-risk signing and the Phillies were prepared to make it even after acquiring Lee.

So they're left looking at the current lefthanded options on the market. There's J.C. Romero, whom the Phillies know very well. But he made $4.5 million in 2010 and unless he is willing to take Reyes money, it probably is not prudent to re-sign him.

There's Hideki Okajima, a reliable setup man before 2010 with Boston. But he will likely cost more than $1.1 million and a source said the Phillies have yet to have any discussions with his agent. The same could be said for Brian Fuentes, who is likely looking for at least $4 million per season in a multi-year deal.

There's Arthur Rhodes, who is coming off an All-Star season and is also a known commodity inside the Phillies' front office. But he too could be costly.

So who would take $1.1 million in 2011? Well, there's Will Ohman, Randy Flores, Joe Beimel and Ron Mahay.

And given those names, I wonder how much would really be lost should the Phillies decide to stay internal for the lefthanded quest and let Antonio Bastardo, Dan Meyer, Mike Zagurski and Sergio Escalona fight for the job this spring.

Remember the Lee effect. The bullpen will be asked to pitch even fewer innings this season than last. On many nights, the starting pitcher could finish seven innings. That would leave the eighth for Madson and the ninth for Lidge. The opportunities for a lefthanded reliever to matchup and face a lefty are lessened.

Then, consider this: The Phillies have approximately one reliever under contract for 2012 -- Contreras. Lidge has an option that is likely to be declined (he could be back in 2012, but not for $12.5 million), and Madson and Baez are free agents.

The bullpen in 2012 will have to be younger by necessity. It would behoove the Phillies to attempt to slowly work one or two of their younger arms they like -- Bastardo, David Herndon, Justin De Fratus, Scott Mathieson, Michael Stutes and Michael Schwimer -- into low-leverage bullpen roles in 2011 with an eye toward 2012.

For reasons we've explained above, the soft underbelly of the Phillies' bullpen will really be marginalized in 2011. It's a good chance to fill those spots with younger pitchers.

Plenty of times, Ruben Amaro Jr. has said, "We're not going to have a lefty just to have a lefty." If his starting staff is going to go deep into games most nights, he has Contreras, Madson and Lidge to pitch the later innings. They can retire lefties too.

The bullpen was Amaro's top priority at the beginning of the off-season. He solved many depth issues by signing a starter. And with an extraordinary rotation in 2011, the Phillies should not follow the traditional roster guidelines that govern pitching staffs.