CLEARWATER, Fla. — Edward Mujica sat at his locker Tuesday morning. He did not bother changing into his Phillies uniform as he awaited his fate. At 8:22 a.m., pitching coach Bob McClure summoned the veteran reliever.
The Phillies had released him.
The search for a competent group of seven relievers is nearing a conclusion, and it is not obvious that the Phillies have accomplished their goal. They do not have a closer. They may enter the season without one, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin conceded after Tuesday's rainout.
"Unless I'm 100 percent sure about somebody I want to call a closer, then I'm not going to call anybody a closer," Mackanin said. "When you think about it, a closer is somebody that you go to, that you count on for the ninth inning. I don't know if … we probably have one. I hope we have one. But I'm not going to name one right now. Just to call a guy closer, that doesn't really mean anything."
Mujica's release, it appears, leaves three pitchers vying for the final spot in the Phillies bullpen: Andrew Bailey, Ernesto Frieri and Hector Neris. All three can be sent to the minors.
The rest of the unit appears set with three righties and three lefties. The righthanders are Dalier Hinojosa, David Hernandez, Jeanmar Gomez. The lefthanders are Brett Oberholtzer, Daniel Stumpf and James Russell.
Hinojosa and Hernandez are the top options to close.
"Even in the remaining decisions, it's going to be hard to pin it down to who breaks with us as the first seven," Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said. "But as we all know, no team is likely to get through a season with the same seven-man bullpen they started the season with. We're trying to balance all of those factors. Put together the best opening-day group as well as preserving as much depth as we can for the year."
Neris, 26, could pitch his way onto the team because of his ability to throw strikes and log multiple innings.
Bailey, labeled on March 22 by Mackanin as the "front runner" to be the team's closer, could be headed to the minors. The 31-year-old righthander has lost velocity in his recent outings, and opposing batters have hit him hard. That has led to increased criticism from Mackanin.
Frieri, 30, did not throw the ball well at the start of camp, but the Phillies believe they may have unlocked something with a mechanical adjustment suggested by McClure.
Had the Phillies added Mujica to the 25-man roster, he would have been guaranteed $2.5 million.
The Phillies and Yankees played four innings Tuesday before a steady rain canceled the game. The numbers don't count, but Ryan Howard struck out two times in two at bats. That would give him 18 strikeouts in 48 at bats this spring. Plus, he struck out in four of his five at bats Sunday in a minor-league scrimmage. … The Phillies play their last Grapefruit League game Wednesday against Houston. Jeremy Hellickson will start.