For much of this season, Charlie Manuel has lamented the Phillies' inability to develop young relievers. It is a mantra repeated over and over as the manager watches the worst bullpen in baseball stumble for a second consecutive season.
When the Phillies rebuild a bullpen this winter, it will include Antonio Bastardo. His 50-game suspension Monday was the latest infamy for a beleaguered unit. Drug use aside, Bastardo is the sort of pitcher that has eluded these Phillies.
They have attempted to patch the bullpen with bargain veteran arms. They have developed two reliable, homegrown relievers in the last decade: Ryan Madson and Bastardo. That is an issue.
Consider the opening-day bullpens from each of the last three seasons:
2011: Danys Baez, Antonio Bastardo, Jose Contreras, David Herndon, Kyle Kendrick, Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero
2012: Antonio Bastardo, David Herndon, Kyle Kendrick, Jonathan Papelbon, Chad Qualls, Joe Savery, Mike Stutes
2013: Mike Adams, Phillippe Aumont, Antonio Bastardo, Chad Durbin, Jeremy Horst, Jonathan Papelbon, Raul Valdes
Bastardo is the lone constant in all three. The 2013 unit is especially jarring, considering just two of its original members remain on Aug. 6: Papelbon and Valdes. Adams and Horst are done for the season with arm injuries; Durbin was released in May; Aumont cannot find the strike zone at triple A.
There are no easy decisions this winter. None of the other young arms -- Justin De Fratus, Jake Diekman, J.C. Ramirez, Luis Garcia or Joe Savery -- have forged trust. Ruben Amaro Jr. will once again search the reliever market for a viable free agent. (If anything, Diekman should be used exclusively as a lefthanded specialist. Lefties have a career .549 OPS as opposed to an .853 by righties. The numbers are even more pronounced in 2013.)
Maybe the secret is in the organization's starting pitching depth. If Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez are locks for the rotation, that leaves one spot for Jonathan Pettibone, Adam Morgan, Ethan Martin, etc. Jesse Biddle could arrive mid-season in 2014. Roy Halladay has expressed his desire for a return; John Lannan has a year of arbitration remaining.
The situation begs the Phillies to think outside the box.
Martin will have his chance to start in the majors for the next few weeks. Most scouts view him as a future reliever. The Phillies once made a similar conversion with Madson after he reached the majors as a starter. Scouts love Ken Giles' power arm but injuries at single-A Clearwater have limited his 2013 season. Maybe he is invited to spring training for a look.
Bastardo's replacement could be Mauricio Robles, a 24-year-old Venezuelan who was a waiver claim last winter. He has a 2.00 ERA in 27 innings at triple-A Lehigh Valley but he has walked 26 batters against 16 strikeouts. He should fit in well; Phillies relievers have walked 4.17 hitters per nine innings, the highest rate in baseball.
If the suspension is viewed with a long-range perspective, 51 games of rest for Bastardo is not the worst thing. Just eight lefthanded relievers have thrown more innings than Bastardo (152 2/3) over the last three seasons. His 3.12 ERA ranks 16th among 35 lefty relievers with at least 100 innings pitched from 2011-13.
Bastardo made $1.4 million through arbitration in 2013 and will forfeit close to $500,000 of it. It will make him cheaper in 2014, when his salary could rise to about $2 million. It would have been more without the disgrace of his suspension.
Either way, Bastardo is and was a valuable member of the bullpen. The Phillies need more pitchers like him -- without the stain of baseball's wrath, of course.