The Phillies’ Bullpen Is Still Terrible

The Phillies’ Bullpen Is Still Terrible

The Phillies lost 12 games that they led going into the eighth inning in 2012, which had they won even two-thirds of those would have been good enough to make the playoffs. So Ruben Amaro Jr. signed free agent Mike Adams, setup man extraordinaire, and checked one problem off of his list.

Adams just picked up his fourth loss of the season though, most among Phillies relievers. On top of battling injuries for the past month, he’s been far from automatic since coming over from Texas, and it’s only gotten worse. The 34-year-old righthander was charged with runs in six of his last eight appearances, growing his earned run average to 4.22 in the process.

Neither Adams nor the Phils’ bullpen as a whole are entirely to blame for Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Twins. Cole Hamels lasted just six innings, and while he wasn’t ineffective in the seven-hit-two-run effort, we’ve come to expect he go deeper than that. Of course, the larger issue yet again was the ongoing lack of support at the plate.

Still, no sooner did the Fightins knot the score in the top of the eighth inning was Adams with the assistance of Antonio Bastardo able to give the lead right back in the bottom half. This and sights like it – inability to hold tight leads or even keep games close – have remained all-too-familiar problems in 2013.

With an ERA of 4.48, Philadelphia’s bullpen ranks 28th out of 30 Major League teams in 2013, which believe it or not is worse than it was one year ago when they finished 21st with a downright pleasant-by-comparison 3.94. Only the Mets and Astros have leakier pens, a pair of clubs whose combined records equate to a .360 winning percentage.

Yes, that the bullpen has not been very good probably goes without saying. It’s been bad for so long, this hardly comes as some kind of revelation.

What makes this so upsetting is the bullpen was supposed to be improved.

Obviously Adams, thought to be a major fix heading into the season, has been a letdown. He’s not been completely healthy, so maybe he gets something of a pass. Regardless, the lack of stability at the back end changed the outlook dramatically. If Adams isn’t the guy to get the Phillies to Jonathan Papelbon, they’re essentially in the exact same boat as last year.

It’s not like anybody else is stepping up. Bastardo has been better, but still inconsistent. Phillippe Aumont was sent back to Triple A to work on his command. Justin De Fratus has allowed runs to score – inherited or otherwise – in four of his last nine outings. Jeremy Horst plain isn’t hacking it. And the jury is still out on Michael Stutes, but he hasn't exactly looked dominant.

Only Papelbon has consistently gotten the job done, and he pitches almost exclusively in the ninth inning. Pap's 11 saves in 11 opportunities this season are merely good for ninth in the National League.

Part of the problem is usage, and that falls squarely on Charlie Manuel. Manuel has misread situations on a number of occasions this season already, which again isn’t exactly a new trait for the Phils' skipper. Even last night's move for Bastardo, while it got the lefty-on-lefty matchup Charlie apparently wanted for Justin Morneau, came right after Adams had just recorded back-to-back outs and seemed to be getting settling in. Wasn't that exactly the type of situation Adams was brought here for?

Plus Manuel might as well have been waving a white flag any time Chad Durbin (released) or Raul Valdes (demoted) entered a game, all 26 appearances between the two of them.

It’s also true Charlie doesn’t exactly have a lot to work with here. If Adams isn’t able to get the Phillies three outs, and none of the young arms are capable of getting it done on a consistent basis either, where does the club go from here?

Tumbling further out of the playoff race I suppose.

Phillies MVP Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

Phillies MVP Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

It feels appropriate with the season coming to an end and the recent struggles of the Phillies' entire pitching staff to again point out how consistent Jerad Eickhoff has been in 2016.

Tuesday's rain delay likely cost him a shot at reaching 200 innings — he's sitting on 191⅓ with one start left — but his season has obviously been a success whether or not he reaches that mark. 

Some may argue Odubel Herrera has been the Phillies' MVP this season, but I'd go Eickhoff. Maybe that's just based on the inconsistencies of his rotation mates, but there's real value in a guy who gives you six quality innings each time out. Eickhoff this season was basically John Lackey — a reliable mid-rotation workhorse with solid but unspectacular numbers.

ESPN's longtime prospect analyst Keith Law mentioned Eickhoff this week in an Insider post looking at players he judged incorrectly. Eickhoff and Cubs Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks were the first two pitchers mentioned.

In his assessment of what went wrong with his initial evaluation of Eickhoff, Law wrote:

"I hadn't seen Eickhoff in the minors and, based on what I'd heard about him, had him as a back-end starter, saying he had the repertoire to start but giving him a limited, back-end ceiling. Eickhoff had a good curveball with Texas. But the Phillies' staff has encouraged him to throw it more often, and it's been a difference-making pitch for him. His curve accounted for 40 percent of his swings and misses in 2016, and it's one of the most effective curveballs in MLB right now; that pitch alone has made him more than just a back-end starter, and he has been the Phillies' most valuable starter this year. He is probably a league-average, No. 3 starter going forward with the arsenal he has — average fastball, plus curveball, inconsistent slider that flashes plus but on which he makes too many mistakes — and with 4-WAR potential, given his durability."

Eickhoff's curveball was what made a lot of us take notice late last season. He used it to shut down some good lineups in September, and he finished 2015 with back-to-back seven-inning, 10-strikeout games against the Nationals and Mets.

This season, he grew up. He incorporated the slider more and that led him out of an early-season funk. Early in the year, hitters were laying off his curveball and swinging at any fastball near the zone because it's a hittable pitch. Once he started showing another breaking ball, the game plan for the opposition became more complicated.

There was nothing fluky about Eickhoff's 2016 season. He'll enter the final day of the season 11-14 with a 3.72 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. 

It's pretty startling to compare Eickhoff's numbers since joining the Phillies to Cole Hamels' with the Rangers. Have a look.

• Hamels with the Rangers (44 starts): 3.42 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.8 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

• Eickhoff with the Phillies (40 starts): 3.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.9 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

It's not an apples to apples comparison because Hamels has pitched about 40 more innings than Eickhoff in a tougher league and in a tougher ballpark. It doesn't mean that going forward they will be equals. It just means that over the last season and a half, their production has been close to equal.

Nobody would have expected a year ago that Eickhoff would be the best piece in that trade. But until Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams graduate to the majors in full-time roles and produce, Eickhoff will be the unexpected centerpiece of that blockbuster deal with the Rangers.

He's a walking example of solid scouting and even better player development by the Phillies.

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

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Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

CHESTER, Pa. — Union head coach Jim Curtin knows it may seem like a weird situation to some.

Early on Tuesday morning, as soccer fans around the area were just waking up, the Union issued a press release that stated that Tranquillo Barnetta would be leaving the team at the end of the 2016 season (see story)

There was no trade. No sale. No contract dispute. No off-the-field issues. 

It was simply a case of a player — a really good player — deciding before the end of the season that he wanted to say goodbye to MLS and finish his pro career with his hometown club in St. Gallen, Switzerland. 

“I think it’s unique maybe to the American public and fan bases that a guy announces it and there’s still [part of] a season left to play,” Curtin said during his weekly press conference. “I think it’s strange for everyone to hear it that way. But in Europe that’s kind of the norm. To get out ahead of it shows what kind of man and leader he is. He addressed the team and didn’t want it to be a situation where something leaked out. He’s a true pro. I’m honored to have coached him and I want to prolong it as long as I possibly can.”

In other American leagues, of course, a talented but aging player with Barnetta’s pedigree might drum up a bidding war to try to get one more good contract in free agency before he retires, perhaps using a strong playoff performance to do so. But, as Curtin alluded to, global soccer is a whole different animal. And Barnetta never planned to use his 2016 performance as a launching pad to a new deal with Philly or something bigger on a different MLS team.

His plan all along was to retire for the hometown club he cheered for as a kid — and he made sure he’d have the freedom to do so when he signed with the Union last summer.

“We offered several years but he was very content and adamant about taking an 18-month deal,” Curtin said. “A lot of people say they’re not about the money but Tranquillo truly means when he says it. He came here at a very big discount to what his value was in the European market. And he had a goal of playing for his hometown club, which I respect at the end of the day.”

If there’s any knock against Barnetta, it’s that he essentially treated MLS as a short-term project, a way to try something new after an illustrious career in Switzerland and Germany, to live in a different part of the world and see different cities throughout the United States.

But make no mistake, he earned that right and he never tried to hire his future ambitions. And even if his tenure with the Union will be a short one, it’s been very beneficial for both sides.

Barnetta, for instance, learned about the grueling travel demands in MLS and the more physical nature of the league compared to ones in Europe, all while showing the sublime skill that made him a three-time World Cup veteran for Switzerland.

And the Union leaned on his talent and leadership at the end of their disappointing 2015 season and throughout the entire 2016 campaign with Curtin calling him “the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey.”

“He’s a great example for our young guys,” the Union coach added. “He’s got a close relationship with a lot of the veteran guys. And he’s just a pleasure to have in the locker room. He comes to work with a smile on his face but when it’s time to work, he’s the hardest worker there is. A true professional. And the pedigree is the highest we’ve ever had in this club.”

You can make the case that acquiring players with great pedigrees hasn’t always worked to the Union’s benefit (see: Mbolhi, Rais), but it’s hard to find any fault in the Barnetta deal, especially when you consider Philadelphia got him at a discount and that Curtin and technical director Chris Albright orchestrated the signing at a time when the franchise was in a state of flux and sporting director Earnie Stewart had yet to join the fold. 

For someone that’s played in three World Cups, the Champions League and one of the top leagues in Europe, Barnetta may not be the biggest name out there. But getting him when they did was still something of a coup for Philadelphia. And the benefits will likely be reaped for a long time to come as the Union followed last year’s Barnetta signing with a couple of big moves in the offseason and this summer’s long-term acquisition of U.S. national team starter Alejandro Bedoya — the combination of which has them thinking about the playoffs and a whole lot more even as Barnetta’s departure looms.

“It’s something we want to celebrate rather than pity and feel bad,” Curtin said. “We’re happy for the time we’ve had him here. And now we’re gonna make it last as long as we possibly can. The rest of the games out, in the pregame talk, we’ll say, ‘Let’s extend this thing as long as possible and use it as a rallying cry.’ You don’t want it to come to an end. And when it does come to an end, you want it to be a special moment.”

What kind of special moment?

“We want his last game with the Philadelphia Union to be an MLS Cup.”