Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Other Guy

There's little suspense in Phillies' camp this spring.

Who's going to be the number five starter?

Who's will get the last spot in the bullpen? This is quite possibly tied to the first question.

And will the players recovering from injury (especially Brad Lidge and JC Romero) be ready for Opening Day?

That doesn't mean there's little news coming from Clearwater.

Indeed, there's a steady stream of news as Cole Hamels attempts to come back from a mediocre 2009, Placido Polanco settles in at third base, and Doc Halladay gives fans and coaches a view of their ace for the next four years.

One guy crucial to the team's success hasn't been making headlines: JA Happ.

After beginning last season in the bullpen, Happ replaced Chan Ho Park in the rotation and proceeded to have an extremely impressive season, noticed by others with a second place finish in Rookie of the Year balloting.

But sophomore seasons are tough, especially on starters.

You need look no further than Kyle Kendrick, or even Hamels to see that hitters learn a pitcher's tendencies, and the results can be brutal. Many a rookie sensation has punched a ticket back to the farm in their second go at the show.

So, though Happ's spot in the rotation on Opening Day is assured barring a complete meltdown this spring, his continued presence in the number four slot in the rotation is far from certain.

Opening Day rotations rarely hold up unaltered through to September or October. Just consider that 2009's starting five were Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, Joe Blanton, Hamels, and Park versus the September five of Cliff Lee, Hamels, Blanton, Pedro Martinez, and Happ.

But having a solid starting rotation sets up the rest of the team. Solid starters who eat innings keep the bullpen rested, which makes them more effective. It also enables Charlie Manuel to rest his starting eight more frequently because he has confidence that the team doesn't need to score 10 runs every night to win a game.

Happ did everything right in 2009. After a very brief period of being upset about losing out on the starting spot, he accepted his position in the 'pen, performed admirably, and re-adjusted to the rotation when the need arose.

Never was he seen as getting too excited by success or too upset by setbacks (excepting the natural disappointment of losing out to Park for the rotation).

He exuded quiet confidence, and I hope to see an extremely successful follow-up to 2009.

But history indicates that's not likely. So if Kendrick is not able to displace Moyer from the number five spot, there's a very good chance that he'll have another shot midseason.

After that, it gets interesting. Following Kendrick, the next most likely starter would be an aging Jose Contreras, who will almost certainly start the season in the bullpen and be expected to contribute a spot start here and there regardless.

Beyond that, you start looking at Antonio Bastardo, who has a good chance at being the second lefty out of the bullpen, assuming Romero is the first; and then?

I guess Scott Mathieson is a distant possibility, but having moved so many players the past two seasons, there's no obvious backfill.

Independent of Happ and Kendrick's performance, we're likely to rely on several other pitchers for at least 5 starts this season, perhaps more since one of our projected starters is a 47 year-old coming off an injury-plagued and rather ineffective season.

So, though the suspense might be missing, there's still plenty to learn this spring; and we'll need to keep an eye out for all of the other guys toeing the rubber as we're likely to see some of them at the Bank one sunny day this summer.

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