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Phillies' bullpen strikingly strong

Jonathan Papelbon said the ’pen has the potential to “to have a very good year.”

Ken Giles. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Ken Giles. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

FORT MYERS, Fla. - With the three hitters projected to hit in the middle of the batting order past their 35th birthdays, the regular production expected from the Phillies' offense is uncertain at best.

With Cliff Lee likely gone for the duration of the season and the likelihood that Cole Hamels could be traded before the end of the summer, the formerly formidable starting rotation is more than vulnerable.

It's a 1-2 punch that has led some to believe to Phillies could flirt with 100 losses in 2015.

But there's at least one area of the team that has already begun rebuilding, one that's already been infused with youth while also being home to an All-Star veteran. Jonathan Papelbon and the young arms in the Phillies' bullpen provide a semblance of hope for the upcoming season.

Within the last 2 years, the Phillies have found more than a couple of youthful arms that can regularly pepper the strike zone with 95-mph-plus fastballs, the kind of pitchers Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee dreamed of for years.

The bullpen may have a chance, at least, to be one of the best Papelbon has pitched in during his 10-year career.

"When you're talking sheer potential, yeah," the 34-year-old closer said. "Potentially we're set up to have a very good year. But I've also been a part of a lot of bullpens that were supposed to be potentially good and sucked. For me, I would like to say that we have the talent and the work ethic and the close-knit tightness as a group to be successful."

The 'pen received a blow over the weekend, though, when second-year lefthander Mario Hollands was diagnosed with a strain of his common flexor tendon, the same injury Cliff Lee has had. The team will likely announce a decision on surgery in the coming days.

The absence of Hollands opens the door for others competing for jobs in the final 2 weeks of exhibition games this spring. Bullpen hopefuls Jeanmar Gomez, Luis Garcia and Andy Oliver all pitched yesterday against the Red Sox.

With 13 games remaining in the exhibition season schedule, the last 2-3 spots in the bullpen are still up for grabs. But it's both the strength of competition for those jobs, and mainly, the four proven roster locks, that make the unit the undisputed strength of the Phillies as a whole.

"That was a strength last year and there's no reason why it shouldn't be a strength this year," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "And from a depth standpoint, it may even be better than last year."

Papelbon, who has a year left on his contract, and at least an eye on the possibility of joining a contender through a trade, has impressed in the first 3 weeks of Grapefruit League games. His fastball has been hovering closer to the range it was during his first year with the Phillies in 2012 (93.8 mph average, according to PITCHf/X data) than where it was last year (91.3).

"He's flirting 90-91 this time last year," Sandberg said. "Now right from the get-go at 94. You can't help but wonder if that can jump up as he gets reps in there."

Righthander Justin De Fratus, one of the other roster locks with Papelbon, Ken Giles and Jake Diekman, has also had more pop on his pitches this spring.

"He's been solid," Sandberg said of De Fratus.

As a unit, the relief corps of 2014 could be broken into a tale of two seasons.

In the first 2 months of last season, through May, the Phillies lost nine games that they had either led or were tied after six innings, including three times in their first eight games. But from June on, in the final 4 months, Phillies' relievers had a 3.36 ERA, fifth best in the National League.

"It's asking our starting pitchers to go get into the sixth, go six innings," Sandberg said. "We had success with that last year, getting a solid six innings from our starter and then going to the bullpen. A lot of times that's a recipe for a win."

Unless a starter like Kevin Slowey was moved into a relief role, which is a possibility even though he's the current favorite for the fifth starter job, the competition for the final three spots in the bullpen would figure to be between six pitchers, four righthanders and two lefthanders: Oliver, a Rule 5 pick, and fellow lefty Cesar Jimenez; righthanders Gomez, Garcia, Hector Neris and Phillippe Aumont.

Oliver, who the Phillies would lose if he's not on the Opening Day roster due to his Rule 5 status, is close to reaching lock status. He saw his spring scoreless streak come to an end yesterday, but has a 2.16 ERA in five games while striking out 16 and walking three in 8 1/3 innings.

Based on spring success, Garcia and Gomez might be the next two favorites.

Garcia hasn't allowed a run in six games and has walked just one batter in seven innings; he pitched a perfect frame in the seventh inning yesterday, striking out two. Gomez, who had a 3.19 ERA in 44 games with Pittsburgh last season, hasn't allowed a run in five of the six games he's pitched this spring, including yesterday, when he pitched a perfect 1 1/3 innings.

Whether it's young players with upside or proven pitchers who are already established, there's reason to believe the 'pen might be as good as people expect it to be in 2015.

"It's not one thing for me," Papelbon said of what he liked best. "I like that fact that we've all, except for Kenny [Giles], who is still pretty young in the process, we've all had our bumps and bruises along the way. And I think those are major learning curves. I think you learn more out of the times you've failed than when you succeed.

"But on top of that, we have a good group. There is potential for great things to happen, but like I said, the season will dictate that. Our work ethic will dictate that. Our camaraderie with dictate that. Our health. All these things."