WASHINGTON - Prospect Antonio Bastardo impressed Phillies brass enough as a starter over the past two seasons that they invited him to major league camp this spring to get a better look. Afterward, the organization decided he could have the makings of a quality lefthanded reliever, a position they have spent much of the last year looking to bolster.
While the Phillies suddenly have a glut of lefties in the bullpen, they think that if Bastardo continues to improve his slider, he could have a chance to contribute on the major league level soon.
"We think he's got a chance to be a quality reliever in the big leagues," pitching coach Rich Dubee said yesterday before the Phillies' 8-2 loss to the Nationals. "With the work that we have done on the breaking ball, we think he might be a possibility up here some time this year if the breaking ball continues to come."
With Scott Eyre, Jack Taschner and J.A. Happ on the active roster, the Phillies have lefthanded options in the bullpen. But only Eyre, who has thrown 1 2/3 scoreless innings this year and has held lefties to a .241 average, .323 on-base percentage and .397 slugging percentage for his career, has the numbers of a true lefty specialist. Taschner has had better success against righties than lefties in his career, while Happ is a projected starter who is serving in long relief.
That could open the door for a player such as Bastardo to contribute.
Last year, the Phillies called up lefties Les Walrond and R.J. Swindle at various points to fill in at the big-league level. It is too early to tell whether Bastardo will get that chance this season. But the club thinks that, unlike Walrond or Swindle, he could have some staying power if he does get his chance.
"He's got some arm strength and a pretty good breaking ball, but he's inconsistent with it," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "But anybody who can throw between 90 and 93 as a lefthander and has the makings of a breaking ball, if he starts coming around more consistently, yeah, it's a possibility."
The Phillies have been working with Bastardo on his breaking ball, which, before spring training, had somewhat of an identity problem. Dubee said that the team has worked with the 23-year-old Dominican Republic native on turning the pitch - which was a cross between a curveball and a slider - into a true slider. Bastardo appeared in three Grapefruit League games, allowing three runs and striking out six while walking one in five innings. In two appearances at Double A Reading this season, he has thrown four scoreless innings, allowing two hits and one walk, while striking out four.
"He was caught between a curveball and a slider," Dubee said. "Now he's defined that he's throwing a slider . . . and hopefully keep building on it."
Jimmy Rollins is off to a slow start at the plate, with four hits and two walks in 39 plate appearances, including 0-for-3 and a sacrifice fly last night.
Charlie Manuel is not concerned.
"Jimmy is going to hit," the Phillies manager said. "One of the biggest reasons I say he is going to hit is [that] his swing is very easy. He's very basic. He's got a good load, a good balance at the plate, and everything is kind of parallel. It's just a matter of getting short and quick and staying on the ball."
Rollins' struggle to get on base is a big reason why the Phillies have only two stolen bases, their lowest total through eight games since 2004, when they stole two in their first 14 games. Manuel said opposing pitchers have thrown Rollins and No. 2 hitter Shane Victorino (.219, .316 on-base percentage) offspeed pitches early in the count, which has kept them off balance.
But, he said, the speedy duo - Rollins and Victorino combined to steal 83 bases last season - will adapt.
"It's just a matter of time until they start hitting some of those, and [opposing pitchers] will quit. They did that in the past, and when they see enough of them, they'll start hitting them," Manuel said.