CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) — Heading into the final week of July last summer, the Philadelphia Phillies had two formidable options to close out games: perennial All-Star Jonathan Papelbon and rising hard-throwing right-hander Ken Giles.
But both have since been traded, Papelbon to Washington and Giles to Houston, and the Phillies opened camp in Clearwater with an open competition for the closer's role for the first time in more than a decade.
Before there were Giles and Papelbon, there were Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge. Before that, the Phillies had Brett Myers and Tom Gordon.
With the spring training game schedule set to begin in days, first-year Philadelphia manager Pete Mackanin had an honest assessment of who could be the leading candidate for the back of his bullpen.
"We don't know yet," Mackanin said. "That's one of the things that's going to be a lot of fun looking at. By the end of spring training, we'll come up with somebody. We'll look at all of them."
Among the most likely candidates are veteran setup man David Hernandez and three other right-handers who have big league closing experience: non-roster pitchers Andrew Bailey, Edward Mujica and Ernesto Frieri.
Hernandez may have a leg up on the competition because he's the only one of that group in camp on a major league contract. By way of a one-year, $3.9 million contract, the 30-year-old Hernandez was the only big league free agent the rebuilding Phillies signed this winter.
"I'm just ready to compete and whoever that leads me in whatever role is there, I'm just trying to get outs," said Hernandez, who became an effective eighth-inning reliever with Arizona before undergoing Tommy John surgery two years ago. "I've always been one of those guys that — I don't care where I fit in the bullpen. I just want to be in the bullpen and have success with whatever role I'm in. The cards will play out the way they will."
Hernandez converted seven straight save opportunities in July 2011, when then-Arizona closer J.J. Putz was on the disabled list. The three other closer competitors in Clearwater have a lot more ninth-inning work on their resumes.
Bailey, a two-time All-Star and the 2009 American League Rookie of the Year, was a competent closer from the get-go of his major league career in Oakland. But he had injury troubles in back to back years with Boston in 2012 and 2013, most notably shoulder surgery that cost him the majority of the last two years.
He returned to a big league mound last September with the New York Yankees.
"The (shoulder) surgery I had, the timetable I had of 18 to 24 months, is pretty grueling," said Bailey, a South Jersey native who spent the last two seasons with the New York Yankees on minor league contracts. "It was a lot of hard work, not only by me but the Yankees organization and the trainers. I was very fortunate to be given that opportunity by them. They stood by me through the full two years. And being blessed with the opportunity to get back last September, it kind of felt like my debut all over again. It was pretty cool. You get those butterflies again getting back out there."
Like Bailey, both Mujica and Frieri are more than a couple of years removed from jobs as big league closers. But they also have a combined 123 major league saves and thus the know-how to get critical ninth-inning outs.
Mackanin said he hadn't seen much of the work of any of his potential closing candidates in recent years, since he's been in the Phillies' dugout as a coach and they've mostly been in the AL. But he'll monitor them all closely this spring and is eager to see who will come out on top.
"On one hand, it's almost a bonus not having seen a lot of these guys — It's almost like I'm getting a first impression from these guys, a clean look," Mackanin said. "We're going to evaluate everybody and see how they play. If they don't play well, we're going to try to keep the guy that's better."
NOTES: Outfielder/third baseman Cody Asche was sidelined for the third straight day of full-squad workouts with a sore right oblique. Ache expects to be ready to return to the field when the Phillies open the Grapefruit League schedule with the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday in Clearwater. . Right-handed pitcher Jerad Eickhoff threw his first bullpen session of the spring on Thursday and could jump into the rotation at some point in the next week. Eickhoff suffered a small, non-displaced fracture on his pitching thumb on Feb. 11 while taking bunting practice in the batting cage. . The Phillies will open their exhibition season schedule on Sunday at Bright House Field when they host the University of Tampa.
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