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Phils' bullpen issues are top concern

Phillies' bullpen issues remain top concern

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Everything is subject to change, assures assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who knows much can still happen before Opening Day, so the fact that Jon Lieber and Aaron Rowand still dress in Phillies garb shouldn't be seen as alarming or concerning.

"There's still time left," Amaro said. "A lot can happen."

The Phillies have tirelessly tried to address the team's bullpen, generally viewed as the Achilles' heel, since the 2006 season ended. Rheal Cormier had already been traded, and Arthur Rhodes, Aaron Fultz and Rick White weren't re-signed.

The Phillies thought they had landed Joe Borowski until a physical raised a red flag, so they turned to Antonio Alfonseca, Rule 5 Draft picks Jim Ed Warden, Alfredo Simon and waiver claim Anderson Garcia, hoping a few emerged.

With the regular season scheduled to begin April 2 at Citizens Bank Park, the bullpen remains a question. All-Star Tom Gordon's effectiveness is tempered by health questions, and the Phillies will be careful using him, especially in the first month. Ryan Madson has pitched well, but Alfonseca and Geoff Geary have been inconsistent. Fabio Castro, Eude Brito, Simon and Garcia are gone.

Unable to trade Lieber, the Phillies sent him out to the 'pen, filling one of the available spots, though he is currently out with a strained right oblique muscle. If he's unable to start the season, Clay Condrey and Warden appear likely to make the team, rather than just one of them.

A painful, common theme in camp has been the bullpen's inability to protect leads, and the Phillies have skidded to a losing Grapefruit League record. The front office is uneasy and manager Charlie Manuel is showing his frustration.

"I'm concerned. I've been saying that all winter," Manuel said. "I expect a lot out of the back end of the bullpen. To build a good staff, it starts in the back end, and then you move forward. I want us to be stronger there."

While a deal could still happen, the reality is increasing that help might not arrive by Opening Day. General manager Pat Gillick is on record saying that he didn't think he'd be able to acquire bullpen help by April 2, and expected to open the season with six starting pitchers. That proved helpful when Freddy Garcia's spring was interrupted by a bout of right biceps tendinitis.

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"The market hasn't dried up," Amaro said. "There just aren't pitchers out there to be had. Everybody is looking for the same thing. I don't think there's a team in baseball that feels totally comfortable with their bullpen."

That's where the Phillies hoped Lieber or Rowand would come in, but some of those options have dried up. The Cardinals, for example, were said to be interested in sending Braden Looper to Philadelphia for Lieber, but instead have turned Looper into a starter. The Cubs and Rangers are teams believed to have reliever excess and a need for a starter, but nothing appears imminent.

As for Rowand, a swap to the Padres for reliever Scott Linebrink never had legs, and the White Sox seem more interested in acquiring Rowand than the Phillies are in dealing him. Hard-throwing lefty Matt Thornton's name popped up, but that was it. Still, with Michael Bourn's brilliant spring, the chances of dealing Rowand increase.

The best hope for the bullpen remains that somebody internally will pitch well enough to cement a role, and Lieber adapts well to the bullpen. The kicked-around idea of making Brett Myers a closer has all but been put to bed.

The bullpen issues are wide awake, and the Phillies still feel they're in a good position.

"We're pleased to be able to have six viable Major League starters," Amaro said. "However we deal with that, whether we have to put one of those guys in the bullpen, or whether we're in a position to move one of those guys, I'd rather be in this position than being in an alternative position -- which would be looking for starting pitching.

"I'm not that surprised we're in this position now. There's still time. The fact of the matter is, if we have to move one of our starters to the bullpen, that's not the worst problem to have."

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

{"content":["spring_training" ] }
{"content":["spring_training" ] }