Improved bullpen gives Amaro fewer holes to fill

Improved bullpen gives Amaro fewer holes to fill

PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies have a few substantial holes to fill in the coming months.

They need a big bat (or two) to help an offense that ranked just eighth in the National League in scoring (4.13 runs per game) from July 6 through the end of the regular season, which is when they had Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the lineup.

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will find his search for a legitimate bat a challenging one. But it could be worse. Just a few months ago, it looked like the Phillies would need to spend serious money to shore up a leaky bullpen, which ranked 29th in baseball with a 4.72 ERA at the All-Star break. But those needs look a little less desperate after the bullpen posted an impressive 2.89 ERA in the second half, which ranked fifth in baseball.

Left-hander Jeremy Horst is one reason why the Phillies might feel they need just one veteran arm to bridge the gap between the rotation and closer Jonathan Papelbon. Horst, whom the Phillies acquired from the Cincinnati Reds in a January trade for light-hitting Wilson Valdez, went 2-0 with a 1.15 ERA in 32 appearances this season. He allowed 21 hits, eight runs (four earned runs), one home run, 14 walks and struck out 40 in 31 1/3 innings. He averaged 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and opponents hit just .193 against him (lefties just .170).

Horst should enter Spring Training a favorite to be the team's second left-hander behind Antonio Bastardo, who is the bullpen's resident enigma with his flashes of brilliance followed by head-scratching stretches of struggles.

"I think it went pretty well," Horst said recently about his season. "I got in some tight situations, so I could see how I would handle those. I just wanted to come in and give them a good look. I'll come into Spring Training with a good feeling and try to earn a spot."

Phillies director of professional scouting Mike Ondo said Horst first appeared on the club's radar in 2010, as it prepared for the Rule 5 Draft.

"We talked about him, but decided to go in a different direction," Ondo said. "But that's when we became aware of Jeremy Horst."

Phillies scouts continued to follow Horst the following year, when he went 1-4 with a 2.81 ERA in 36 appearances with Triple-A Louisville before posting a 2.93 ERA in 12 appearances with the Reds. Later, when the Phillies and Reds talked about a trade involving Valdez, the Phillies knew who they wanted.

"Horst was the player we asked for," Ondo said.

It could not have worked out much better for the Phillies. Valdez hit just .206 with a .463 OPS this season in Cincinnati. In comparison, fellow utility infielder Michael Martinez, whom the Phillies selected in the 2010 Rule 5 Draft, hit .174 with a .461 OPS.

But they found somebody good in Horst.

"Horst had some deception to him, and he threw strikes," Ondo said. "Our scouts liked what they saw. He caught their eye. I think he's done what we thought he would do. He'll determine his role as well as he pitches, but back in 2010 we thought he was somebody who could help the big league club, and he's proven he can do that."

Bastardo, Horst and Jake Diekman are the top three left-handers on the bullpen's depth chart at the moment. The Phillies love Diekman's stuff, but while he struck out 35 batters in 27 1/3 innings (11.5 K/9 mark), he also walked 20 (6.6 per nine innings).

Horst averaged four walks per nine innings, so there is room for improvement.

"I'm always learning," he said. "I think mainly this year it was a battle to kind of stay mentally focused, to come into every game ready to go. It's getting that side of the game down so you're always ready. That was key for me this year. But I've tried to treat every situation the same, come into the game with the same mindset so the game doesn't speed up on you."

Horst seemed to make those adjustments just fine. If he continues to learn, adapt and adjust, the Phillies think Horst should continue to build upon his success this season. And that would give Amaro and the rest of the front office one less thing to worry about.

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.