It begins Wednesday when the Phillies open their Grapefruit League schedule against the Blue Jays at Bright House Field. If fans are looking for something to watch this spring other than Ryan Howard's left leg, Cole Hamels' left shoulder and Mystery Man Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, they should watch a host of relief pitchers fight for jobs. The winners of those jobs -- three or four are available by most estimations -- will be asked to improve a bullpen that ranked 27th in baseball last season with a 4.19 ERA.
The Phils typically carry seven relief pitchers. Closer Jonathan Papelbon obviously has one of those spots. Setup man Mike Adams has a job, but he is expected to open the season on the disabled list as he rehabs from right shoulder surgery. Left-hander Antonio Bastardo has a spot, and left-hander Jake Diekman is a heavy favorite. Right-hander Brad Lincoln has experience, a big arm and is out of options, which also makes him a favorite.
Candidates for the remaining jobs are right-handers Phillippe Aumont, Shawn Camp, Justin De Fratus, Luis Garcia, Ethan Martin, B.J. Rosenberg and Mike Stutes and left-hander Jeremy Horst. The Phillies selected right-hander Kevin Munson in the Rule 5 Draft in December, so he will get a look. Left-hander Cesar Jimenez also is in camp.
Spring Training is a time for optimism, and the Phils certainly are no different when discussing the potential of their bullpen. They believe the experience gained by some of their younger pitchers last season should help this year. Of course, they felt similarly entering last season.
"There is a lot more depth right now," Sandberg said.
The Phillies traded catcher Erik Kratz and pitcher Rob Rasmussen to the Blue Jays for Lincoln. He is 9-11 with a 4.66 ERA in 97 career appearances, but he throws hard and is out of options. The Phils knew that when they acquired Lincoln, which means they pictured him in their bullpen come Opening Day.
But Lincoln must show improved command. He walked 22 batters in 31 2/3 innings last season with the Blue Jays.
"I don't know if it was just a coincidence or not, or lack of focus," Lincoln said. "I've always been a pretty good command guy until last season. Maybe it could have been just a bad year, so hopefully this year we can turn it around."
De Fratus went 3-3 with a 3.86 ERA in 58 appearances. The Phillies seemed comfortable using him in tight situations, having him enter a game seven times with the bases loaded and 22 times with runners in scoring position. Rosenberg went 2-0 with a 3.24 ERA and one save in his final 19 appearances, opening some eyes in the process.
Aumont has big potential, if he can harness it. He struggled with his mechanics and command last season.
"I feel much better physically," Aumont said. "I feel much better mentally. I don't know. I guess 2013 was just a bad year in general."
Camp led Major League Baseball with 80 appearances in 2012, but he carried a 7.04 ERA in 26 appearances last season with the Cubs. Which Camp will the Phils see in Spring Training: the 2012 version or '13 version?
Stutes finally seems to be healthy after battling right shoulder and right biceps issues the past couple of seasons. Horst entered last season as a lock for the bullpen based on a strong 2012, but he succumbed to injury early. He is healthy again. Garcia has a big arm, but he walked 23 in 31 1/3 innings. Martin has tons of talent, but he could be stretched out as a starter and open the season in Triple-A.
"The first couple bullpen sessions, I can tell the guys feel more relaxed, especially the young guys," Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz said. "They were in the big leagues last year in the second half, and they were pitching a lot. That's going to be good for them. Now they feel like they are part of the team. When you're a young guy, you feel like a rookie inside, but what I see right now, they've been great. They believe they can be in the big leagues. That's what I see. That's what I feel. I'm real happy what I see right now. I think they're going to help us. That combination of veterans and young kids, they're going to be good."