The bullpen has been an annual source of apprehension and tension for the Philadelphia Phillies. Last year’s rag tag group that included veterans like Antonio Alfonseca and Jose Mesa, and youngsters such as Michael Zagurski and J.D. Durbin somehow managed to keep the ship afloat until Charlie Manuel rode the arms of J.C. Romero, Tom Gordon, and Brett Myers to the division title.

I like the prospects for this year’s bullpen. It all starts with the closer, and Brad Lidge seems to be progressing nicely from minor knee surgery. He struck out three batters and got another to foul out during a four-out inning in a minor league game yesterday. Yes, that’s a small first step, but it was definitely a good sign. At this point, missing the first week of the regular season seems like a worst case scenario.

Although Lidge suffered through a couple rough seasons in Houston, he rebounded nicely in the second half last season, using upper 90’s heat to strike out more hitters per nine innings than some guy named Mariano. Lidge is psyched about the change of scenery and finally seems to have turned the corner since surrendering that gargantuan home run to Albert Pujols in the 2005 playoffs.

J.C. Romero was salvaged from the scrap heap and despite occasional control issues, he became a dominant left-handed set-up man. Tom Gordon is healthy and better suited to his current set-up role from the right side as opposed to being a full-time closer. Ryan Madson has developed a nasty little cutter and looks great this spring, picking up where he left off before an injury prematurely ended his 2007 season.

One bullpen spot will most likely be filled by Chad Durbin, a solid journeyman who can give you three or four innings if necessary. The final hole in the bullpen might end up being filled by intriguing Rule 5 pick Travis Blackley, who’s been inconsistent but gives the Phils another lefty option.  Other candidates include veteran Clay Condrey and hard throwing Francisco Rosario, both righties.

You don’t want to be forced to stick a rookie on the mound with runners on second and third with no outs. Fortunately, the Phillies bullpen is stacked with veterans who are battle tested in these situations. Not only that, but you have four starters in Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Kyle Kendrick, and Jamie Moyer who can pitch deep into games on a regular basis. Give me this bullpen over those guys at the other end of the Turnpike any day of the week.

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