At Philadelphia's famous Reading Terminal Market, home to some of the city's best seafood, the going rate for three slabs of fish is about $17. This is a pretty good deal. At Philadelphia's famous Veterans Stadium, home of late to some of the major leagues' worst baseball, the going rate for three slabs of reliever is about $17 million. This is not a good deal.
Is it fair to compare new signees Ricky Bottalico (one year, $1.5 million), Rheal Cormier (three years, $8.75 million) and Jose Mesa (two years, $6.8 million) to the catch of the day? Sure it is—if any three pitchers are on intimate terms with the word flounder, it's these guys.
"It is very, very difficult to find good bullpen help, especially closers," says G.M. Ed Wade, who failed in his efforts to reel in free agents John Franco and Jeff Nelson. "Did we overpay? Yes. But the people who criticize the moves didn't see our bullpen last year."
Point taken. In 2000 Philadelphia's pen pieced together one of the most memorable, most remarkable, most...horrific seasons since Enrique Romo's heyday. The Phillies' relievers led the majors in losses (37) and highest ERA (5.72). They ranked second with 20 blown saves, but don't lose heart—first place is in sight. The Royals (thanks largely to Bottalico's seven blown saves) paced baseball with 26. Ya gotta believe!
New manager Larry Bowa has heard the carping about his new relievers, and he thinks it's garbage. Sure, as a Mariner last season Mesa allowed 20 of 36 inherited runners to score. And sure, the lefthanded Cormier had a 6.75 ERA with Boston last August and September. And, well, O.K., so Bottalico did give up runs in eight of his first 18 appearances last season. But Mesa still throws 95 mph, Cormier is a steady situational lefty and Bottalico had his best days as a Phillie, converting 34 of 41 save opportunities four years ago. "The guys in this bullpen have been through the wars," says Bowa. "If things go bad, they've seen it before. They're not gonna get down and pack it in."
The poster child for such resiliency is Mesa, the oft-criticized but usually bubbly 34-year-old righty. Ever since he blew a one-run lead in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series while pitching for Cleveland against Florida, Mesa has been a disappointment. In 1999 Seattle signed him to be its closer, then watched as he pitched to a 4.98 ERA and blew five saves. Last year Mesa lost his job in spring training to Kazuhiro Sasaki, the eventual AL Rookie of the Year. "The way the game works, you always have to bounce back," Mesa says. "I had the bad World Series, I was still happy. They took my job in Seattle, I was still happy. In the bullpen you can never, ever get too down. The next day they need you again." Translation: Mesa expects to get booed by Philly's raucous fans, and he doesn't care.
If there is hope for the Phillies these days, it comes courtesy of Bowa. Last July, when first baseman Travis Lee arrived from Arizona as part of the Curt Schilling trade, he was shocked to enter a clubhouse devoid of laughter and music and bonding. Simply put, the team was 17 games behind first-place Atlanta, and it had given up. "It was gloomy," Lee recalls. "We've all dreamed about reaching the majors, but nobody wanted to be here. It was very awkward."
Although the rotation has a certain what's the word?—mediocrity to it, there is a bright spot in lefty Bruce Chen, who arrived from Atlanta for Andy Ashby in July. Chen is just 23, with an 88-mph fastball that moves, a tricky curve and a changeup he uses 10 to 15 times per game. When he mixes all three pitches, Chen has the look of a No. 1 starter. When he doesn't, bad, bad things happen. And when bad things happen to good starters, it means that the bullpen—egads!—will be on the hook.
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