Understanding and analyzing what the competition is up to is often just as important to knowing what the Nationals are up to. With Opening Day coming up in just about two weeks, it’s time we start taking a look at the rosters heading into the season for each of Washington’s division rivals. Once we run through each of the four divisional opponents, we’ll sum everything up and make some predictions.
Our Season Preview series led off with an examination of the New York Mets. We followed with a look at the Miami Marlins’ pitching staff. Next up, Philadelphia’s pitching staff.
Jonathan Papelbon had established himself as one of baseball’s premier late-game options over the course of his Boston career, though he was far from a perfect closer. He occasionally struggled with the pressure of playing in a market like Boston (the Philadelphia market is just as intense) and often showed his emotions a little more than most seemed to like. His confident demeanor also seemed to rub some people the wrong way, having watching his career up close since I live in the Boston area.
As the 2011 season came to a close, the likelihood that he’d leave Boston via free agency seemed to increase exponentially but there was never much certainty as to where the right-hander would ultimately end up. However, shortly into free agency it became evident that the Phillies were determined to be aggressive in the free agent closer market as they wanted to ensure that they’d land a quality arm for the back end of the bullpen.
Despite repeated reports that the team was nearing a deal with former Phillie Ryan Madson to return as the team’s closer, a deal was ultimately reached with Papelbon in early November. The two sides agreed to a four year, $50 Million contract which easily seemed to set the market for the available closers this winter.
Of course, the closer market instantaneously dried up once Papelbon signed his deal, as no other reliever on the free agent market was able to sign a deal even remotely close to his, in either length or overall value. Even Madson, arguably the next best option available this winter, struggled to find a job until signing late with the Cincinnati Reds, only to suffer an injury that will necessitate missing the entire 2012 season.
Left-hander Antonio Bastardo will likely serve as Papelbon’s primary setup option, particularly after a strong 2011 season in a similar role. One of two right-handers, either Jose Contreras or Michael Stutes, will likely pitch alongside him in late-game situations. Contreras’ status for the season’s start remains in question, as he’s still suffering some lingering effects from an elbow injury he suffered from last season. The chance exists that he’ll begin the year on the DL. Stutes, who had a solid rookie season in 2011, seems like the most likely option to step into the role should Contreras miss some time.
Rounding out the bullpen, the Phillies do have a few candidates with some more substantial experience pitching out of a Major League bullpen. David Herndon has seen action with the Phillies over each of the past two seasons. Meanwhile, he’ll be joined by another right-hander, veteran Chad Qualls, who’ll be pitching is his 9th Major League season and first in Philadelphia. Qualls does have some closing experience in his career, saving 36 games for the Diamondbacks between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, so he too could become a setup option in front of Papelbon.
Kyle Kendrick, another familiar face, returns to a swingman-type role. The Phillies’ bullpen is limited when it comes down to the left-handed options. Contreras’ injury situation may affect that, however, as one of option to make the roster in the event that he needs to start the season on the DL would be Joe Savery.
Despite being another year older, Philadelphia still enters the 2012 season with arguably one of the better starting rotations in the National League. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels are well known, so little needs to be said about their potential performance on the mound this season. Hamels has added motivation this season, as he’ll be a free agent next winter and will be pitching for his next contract.
Vance Worley, who performed above expectations last year after joining the Phillies’ rotation, will step into the 4th spot in the rotation after the team opted to let Roy Oswalt leave via free agency. Worley went 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA on the 2011 season, numbers he may be able to replicate in 2012. But he showed enough that there is reason to believe he’ll be a more that serviceable 4th starter.
It seems, at least at the onset of the season, that the last spot in the rotation will go to veteran right-hander Joe Blanton. Blanton, who’s contract is largely responsible for his role on this team, is rumored to be available for trade if the Phillies can find a taker. They’ve been willing to move him for the past two seasons and have been unable to do so to date. A deal is not expected anytime soon.