GIVEN THE NATURE of his job, and the geography of his habitat, a major league reliever can sometimes feel as if he is on an island. If he is a Phillies reliever, he often can feel as if that island is 3 miles long, on the outskirts of Harrisburg.
After the latest Level 7 meltdown, this one in a 5-2 loss to the Dodgers last night, the club's bullpen ranks next-to-last in the majors in ERA, and, quite possibly, last in ability to complete the necessary repair work. When we say the Phillies have no options, we mean it figuratively only in the sense that their minor league rosters do contain human bodies that possess an ability to throw a baseball overhand, and thus are technically eligible for a promotion in accordance with major league rules. Right now, though, their best move might be to hire the Japanese government to tell everybody that everything is going to be OK.
Here's what the situation looks like down on the farm:
Since he was outrighted to Triple A this month, Brad Lincoln has logged 10 innings with 10 strikeouts and three walks while allowing just one run on four hits, none of them for extra bases. But all three of his appearances have come in long relief, and, despite a .129/.222/.129 opposition line, he is still having a hell of a time throwing strikes. In his two innings on Wednesday, he threw 34 pitches, just 16 for strikes. Only 58 percent of his pitches have gone for strikes thus far at Triple A.
Phillippe Aumont has allowed 14 baserunners in seven innings, seven of them via walk (against eight strikeouts). Hector Neris has four walks, two hit batsmen, a balk and a wild pitch. Kyle Simon hasn't harnessed his command the way the Phillies were hoping he would at this time last year.
At Double A Reading, Ken Giles is still putting up otherworldly strikeout numbers, but I watched him Wednesday night and I continue to understand why the Phillies have not given him a shot. A 97-98 mph fastball, which is what Giles was showing Wednesday, provides a lot of margin for error at the Double A level. But major league hitters know how to hit a 97-98 mph fastball, and Giles was up in the zone and behind in the count, and he doesn't have a consistent enough slider to survive like that for long at the big-league level.
You can argue, what's the harm? That was the argument when Scott Mathieson was putting up good numbers in the minors back in the day, and which might be the argument that ultimately wins out, and which will be an argument that grows increasingly difficult to argue against the longer we watch the status quo. But I'm talking about long-term, help-them-to-contend answers here, and I just don't think Giles counts as one right now.
Jeremy Horst has 13 strikeouts and three walks in eight innings with a 3.38 ERA and a .233/.294/.367 opposition line. Cesar Jimenez has good numbers. Both are lefties, though, and both have had big-league opportunities in the not-so-distant past.
The most realistic option might be to hope that Ethan Martin gets healthy in a hurry. But that doesn't seem likely to happen, at least not the "hurry" part, since he has yet to start a rehab assignment and will likely require a spring training's worth of appearances before the Phillies are comfortable throwing his shoulder back into the fire. And even then, we have yet to receive anything greater than a whiff that he might constitute an answer.
This is not a new problem, of course. The Phillies have failed to build a major league bullpen for the last three seasons. Over the last three seasons, only four teams have a worse bullpen ERA than the Phillies' 4.17: the Astros, Rockies, Mets and Cubs. They have allowed the fourth-highest OPS in the majors, the fourth-highest WHIP, and have walked more batters per nine innings than anybody except the Cubs. That's what I like to call "Not good."