With every 98-m.p.h. Jake Diekman fastball, the Phillies want to believe in the process. They see a young lefthanded reliever harnessing the sort of talent Michael Young described as "unfair" after a batting practice session during spring training. They see a pitcher unafraid to throw strikes; an arm that could emerge from the muck of a lost season.
This is what a spectacular 10 days will do for a Phillies reliever. Diekman is thriving in a zero-pressure environment. If he fails, there is no demotion to follow because the games are meaningless and Diekman represents a glimmer of something. It masks reality: The Phillies have developed just two quality relievers - Ryan Madson and Antonio Bastardo - in the last decade.
One of the winter's tasks - and there are many - facing Ruben Amaro Jr. and his scouting staff is completly rebuilding one of baseball's worst bullpens. They are sure to pursue numerous veteran options on the free-agent market, an arena that rarely offers value.
If multiyear contracts for unpredictable veteran relievers are cumbersome and the Phillies cannot develop some reliable late-inning arms, then what is the solution? Thinking outside the box, like moving Ethan Martin from the rotation to the bullpen, is one method. A total reevaluation of the team's scouting methods and developmental strategy is another.
Pitching coach Rich Dubee is known as a gruff mentor. A veteran is equipped to take criticism and implement it. Younger pitchers could benefit from a different approach. Dubee, whose contract expires at the end of this season, is likely headed elsewhere.
"We've thought about these sort of things before," Amaro said. "We've taken chances. These were guys signed to create depth for us; not to be in the roles they ended up having to pitch in because of injury or because others were not productive."
Amaro has signed eight free-agent relievers to major-league contracts since he became GM after the 2008 season. Seven of those pitchers, excluding Jonathan Papelbon, were setup men or middle relievers. Those seven produced a 4.76 ERA with an average of 34 innings per season. (All major-league relievers have a 3.59 ERA in 2013.)
Amaro paid a premium for below-average pitching. The seven pitchers earned $22.85 million, and that is not including the $7 million owed to Mike Adams in 2014. That money could be a sunk cost, too.
"We're hopeful he can come back," Amaro said of Adams, who underwent shoulder surgery. "How effective will he be? We can't necessarily count him. We can't go into the season next year counting on him as a lockdown eighth-inning guy. That is certainly something we have to address."
Amaro signed Chan Ho Park, Danys Baez, J.C. Romero, Chad Qualls and Chad Durbin to serve as middle relievers. In some instances, they were asked to do more than that. But, for the most part, they failed in any situation.
Jose Contreras delivered consistency for one season, then was re-signed at age 39 for $5.5 million to pitch in 34 games from 2011-12. Adams was one of the game's top setup men for years, and while other teams expressed concern about his health, the Phillies gambled $12 million.
Amaro praised Bastardo's ability, but the team will not use him as its primary setup man. There are questions about him following a 50-game suspension in the Biogenesis scandal. Moreover, he is lefthanded and the Phillies prefer a righty in the eighth.
They could look at pitchers such as Jason Frasor, Jose Veras, Joe Smith, or Jesse Crain. Those arms will be coveted by many teams and a multiyear guarantee is probably required.
Five years of poor evaluation prompts questions about what the Phillies look for when choosing relievers. Granted, the position is hardest to scout and predict; middle relievers are the pitchers not effective enough to be starters or closers.
"Sometimes you have to be lucky to get those guys," Amaro said. "There are times when even a change of scenery can help someone. Those are the kinds of things we will look for."
Diekman, Justin De Fratus, Phillippe Aumont, Jeremy Horst and Mike Stutes are not without talent. The most optimal strategy is to rely on younger arms to mature. But, as the Phillies have discovered, that is difficult on a contending team when the talent is not as gifted as expected. So they will watch Diekman with hope, and try again to build a bullpen through this infuriating process.