The calendar has flipped to February, the month when spring training begins, and it appears as if Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has found the final piece for his bullpen.
Amaro said the Phillies had expressed interest in reliever Chad Qualls the minute free agency opened in November, but the price wasn't right until Tuesday, when the veteran righthander agreed to a one-year deal worth $1.15 million. The deal also includes performance and awards bonuses.
"We've always liked him," Amaro said. "We called at 12:01 a.m. the day he was eligible for free agency, but at that time the price tag was a little on the high side. We had not had a lot of dialogue since then because we had other things to take care of, but the bullpen was one of the things we wanted to address, and once we were able to get the price to where we signed him, it was a hard situation to pass up."
Qualls, 33, went 6-8 with a 3.51 ERA last season in San Diego, but it was his work from the middle of August through the end of the season that convinced the Phillies he had fully recovered from a dislocated left kneecap he suffered in August 2009 when he was pitching for Arizona.
"His stuff at the end of the year was very, very good," Amaro said. "We felt his stuff came back from where it was at before the knee injury."
Qualls posted a 1.96 ERA and opponents hit .219 against him during his final 19 appearances last season.
With the exception of the 2009 season that was cut short by the knee injury, Qualls has shown remarkable durability, appearing in at least 70 games six of the last seven seasons. His 512 appearances in the last seven seasons are the most by any pitcher in baseball.
One place where Qualls has struggled, however, is Citizens Bank Park. In 13 career appearances at the Phillies' quaint South Philly home, he has an 11.12 ERA. There was also a vast disparity in his home-and-away splits last season. At San Diego's cavernous Petco Park, he had a 2.09 ERA, and on the road it was 5.05.
"He has bad numbers at our ballpark and he didn't have good numbers away from [Petco Park] last year," Amaro said. "We look at every aspect of it, but that means we hit him good. I anticipate this guy pitching well for us. He has a good sinker-slider combo and I think he fits well with what we're trying to do."
Qualls joins closer Jonathan Papelbon and veterans Jose Contreras and Kyle Kendrick as the Phillies' relievers with guaranteed contracts for 2012. There is some question whether Contreras, who is 40 and coming off elbow surgery, will be ready for the start of the season.
"I think he has a reasonable chance to be ready if he stays in a straight line and doesn't have any setbacks," Amaro said. "I think he has a better than average chance of being ready. So far he has had no symptoms and he has progressed to throwing from 120 feet. It sounds like he's doing well."
Barring injury, Antonio Bastardo, Mike Stutes, and veteran Dontrelle Willis appear to have the inside track for three other jobs in manager Charlie Manuel's bullpen, but Amaro declared the competition open.
"People have to earn jobs," he said. "Nobody is a lock. Obviously some guys do have an inside track, but I still think it's fairly open."