When Cliff Lee decided to re-join the Philadelphia Phillies in mid-December, the first thought racing through the mind of every Phils’ fan rotated around a star studded rotation that would help the team get the revenge they declared they would seek following a bitter ending to the National League Championship Series.

As the initial shock wore off, some of us baseball scribes posed a more interesting question—How many pitchers are too many for the Phillies?

The addition of Lee shored up a mediocre bullpen an interesting way. He would now join Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels to form a front four that averaged at least seven innings a start in 2010. Even the fifth starter, Joe Blanton, averaged more than six innings a start last season. In large part thanks to Halladay and Lee, the Phillies’ lead the league in complete games with 14, and the bullpen threw a National League low 421 innings—without Lee.

An incredibly durable rotation helped what was once a mediocre bullpen become much more reliable late in games. Of course, a lot of that had to do with health and performance. Former starter Jose Contreras settled into his seventh inning role nicely, while over the final months of the seasons, set-up man Ryan Madson and closer Brad Lidge were nearly untouchable.

For that reason alone, heading into the 2011 season, the Phils’ have to feel pretty good about the state of their bullpen, because they certainly feel good about the strength of their starting pitching. The bullpen’s only loss was middle innings guy Chad Durbin, while JC Romero looks to rebound from an injury plagued 2010 season.

It really isn’t a difficult observation to make—the starting rotation, barring injury, is going to log a ton of innings in front of a bullpen that has the potential to be very strong at the back end. With a core of relievers virtually guaranteed roster spots, the need for the “last man out of the bullpen,” or the 12th pitcher on the roster, is growing incredibly slim.

Excluding the five guys that will compose the starting rotation, we know that six more pitchers are virtual locks for the bullpen. Lidge, Madson, Contreras and Romero will all be heading north for Opening Day. Another pair of relievers, Danys Baez and Kyle Kendrick, are near locks to make the club thanks to the guaranteed dollars on their contracts and spring performances that can’t be used as an excuse to leave them behind.

Looking over that group of six though, you have more than just a few good single inning relievers. You also have more than one guy that is capable of logging several innings per outing. Kendrick, who will most likely break camp as the team’s long man thanks to the depth of the starting rotation. Though he may not have been very effective as a starter last season, he did log 180 innings for the Phils’.

The same case can be argued for several other relievers on the roster. Outside of Lidge and Romero, who will be used primarily against left handed hitters, Contreras, Madson and Baez could all throw more than one inning for the Phillies, though, keeping those guys to one inning a piece may be the better option.

In short, the need for yet another reliever is obsolete behind a starting rotation that will probably be sapping innings from the six guys that are almost guaranteed to make the roster. The question now becomes, “What do the Phils’ do with that last spot on the 25-man roster?”

Obviously, it should go to another utility player, giving the Phillies more options both in the field and on the bench.

While I’m the ultimate optimist in regards to the health of Chase Utley‘s knee (which by the way, he tested out with pivot drills on the second base bag today) and will not concede that claims that he won’t play this season are flat out ludicrous, (I know, I know. I can’t help myself.) he will, at the very least, open the season on the 15-day disabled list.

That virtually guarantees a replacement second baseman a job, which in this case, we’ll award to Wilson Valdez.

With that out of the way, we know eight guys will be playing every day for the Phillies: Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard, Valdez, Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco, Raul Ibanez and Ben Francisco. Love it or hate it, that’s the lineup.

The bench is shaping up as well with just under two weeks of Spring Training left to play. Lefties Brian Schneider and Ross Gload will make the team without question, and with Francisco having played his way into the right field job, John Mayberry Jr. has played his way on to the bench (and has garnered some serious consideration for the starting job from this baseball scribe.)

So where does that leave the bench? Schneider, as he did last season, will serve as Ruiz’s understudy. Back-up catcher—check. While Charlie Manuel has gone on the record stating that Gload can win some playing time in right field, I’m not buying. He’s too valuable a late-inning pinch hitter to start on a regular basis. He’ll play some back-up first base, as well as right field. Primary left handed pinch hitter—check. Mayberry has been impressive this spring. I can’t see him not making the roster, and he upped his versatility by playing some first base as well as the corner outfield positions. Fourth outfielder / first baseman—check.

Not carrying that 12th pitcher gives the Phillies some options to fill out their bench, where the competition has been very heated this spring. While some fans may cringe at his name, I’m under the impression that Luis Castillo is a virtual lock to make this team, and the Phils’ could use him.

While a lot of people believe that Valdez is the better choice at second base to replace Utley, I like to go against the grain. As I argued in this piece earlier in the week, giving Valdez an everyday job takes away from his overall value.

Let’s face the music—the Phillies are an older team. While I’m not going to give you the “they are old and decrepit” speech, they are the type of team that can and will have to avoid injuries by giving their starters adequate rest. In that instance, a player with Valdez’s versatility is key. Having played just about every position on the diamond this spring, the Phils’ will find Valdez plenty of playing time, regardless of whether he’s the starting second baseman or not.

In the long run, he makes a much better utility player than Castillo, who believe it or not, could still benefit a lineup. He’s a switch hitter, which would give Manuel options in the lineup, and even in a down year, proved that he can still get on base to a good extent. Basically, this scenario guarantees both Valdez and Castillo spots on the bench.

That leaves one spot on the 25-man roster for a few guys that have played exceptionally well this spring: Delwyn Young, Josh Barfield, Pete Orr and Michael Martinez.

In my personal opinion, Barfield and Orr aren’t likely to make the team, and you won’t catch me crying over that decision. Both of these guys have played well this spring, but they’ve done little outside of it to show that they can be viable options for a Major League club. With both guys having Minor League options, it makes much more sense to stash them at AAA in the event of an injury.

There are benefits to having a guy like Young on your bench. Offensively, he could provide a spark off of the bench. Last season, he was among the league leaders in pinch hits—right in front of Gload—and as a switch hitter, gives Manuel some versatility later in the game. If the team is comfortable with Valdez playing center-field in the event Victorino needs time off, Young could make the team.

Personally, I’d like to see Martinez earn that final spot though. The Phillies have done very well in the Rule 5 Draft in recent years. Well all know the story of Victorino, but even guys like David Herndon have played well in the roles the Phils’ drafted them to fill.

Martinez is an interesting blend of talent. He plays every position in the middle of the field, including center field, and provides an actual defensive option should the Phils’ need to rest both Castillo and Valdez. He’s shown some power and average this spring, and is probably worth keeping around, if for nothing more than keeping him away from the Washington Nationals.

In this scenario, the Phillies essentially have a player for each role they’ll need to fill off of the bench. Along with those listed above, Castillo gives the Phils’ an option at second base, Young gives the Phils’ a threat from both sides of the plate off of the bench and Martinez can play multiple positions with upside. For a team that has suffered multiple injuries at multiple positions, having that sixth man on the bench is a luxury that many teams can’t afford.

At the very least, it beats holding on to a pitcher the team will never use.

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