A closer for comfort

PHILS HAVE BEGUN THINKING ABOUT GORDON'S REPLACEMENT

Posted: April 02, 2007

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The title of Satchel Paige's autobiography is "Maybe I'll Pitch Forever.''

The legendary Negro Leagues star nearly did. He pitched in his first major league game at 42, and made one appearance for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965 at the age of 59.

Sure, Tom Gordon, the Phillies' 39-year-old closer, would like to continue pitching as long as his right arm allows. But with Gordon's career winding down, the club knows it must at least think about its closer of the future.

Obviously, with the start of the season upon them, the Phillies have more pressing pitching concerns to ponder. But with just one guaranteed season left on Gordon's 3-year, $18 million contract after this year, preparing for this situation sooner rather than later would be a wise move.

Assuming the Phillies are looking for a closer after the 2008 season, the front-runners within the organization appear to be righthanders Joe Bisenius and Ryan Madson.

Assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle said if he had to make a decision today, the likely candidate would be Bisenius because of his mid-90s fastball and breaking ball. Arbuckle still considers Madson, who is entering his fourth full season with the Phillies, more of a setup guy because he doesn't possess the type of out pitches Bisenius does.

During spring training, Arbuckle said the 24-year-old Bisenius, the Phillies' 12th-round draft pick in 2004, has continued to show growth and maturity. He began his pro career as a starter at Class A Batavia in '04 but was converted to the bullpen at Lakewood in '05. Bisenius' command of his pitches has improved tremendously because Arbuckle said he has simplified his delivery.

"He's always had the stuff, but now he's starting to 'pitch' a little bit and command the strike zone,'' Arbuckle said. "That's going to be a work in progress, but he's making huge strides to do that.''

Bisenius' numbers were impressive last season. In 35 relief appearances with Clearwater, of the Class A Florida State League, he was 4-1 with a 1.93 ERA in 60 2/3 innings. He struck out 62 and walked just 22 and earned a promotion to Double A Reading. In 16 games there, he was 4-2 with a 3.09 ERA in 23 1/3 innings, striking out 33 and walking only eight.

Madson, who has been with the organization since being drafted in the ninth round in 1998, began last season in the starting rotation but was moved back to the bullpen after the promotion of lefty Cole Hamels. In his final 12 games, he posted a 3.46 ERA in 13 innings pitched; he didn't allow an earned run in his last five outings. He begins this season as Gordon's setup man.

Bisenius isn't backing away from the challenge of being a closer in the big leagues, saying he's willing and eager to do so in the near future.

"Yeah, that's something I would definitely like to try,'' said Bisenius, who has worked as a closer in the minors. "I like pitching late in the game and having that pressure on me. For right now, I'll do whatever they tell me to do. But it's definitely something I'm looking at 2 or 3 years down the line.''

Madson has appeared in 181 games with the Phillies, most of them out of the bullpen. He has not had much experience as a closer, with three career saves.

"I think it's just watching some of the guys we have in our own clubhouse, like 'Flash,' '' said Madson, referring to Gordon. "It's not that I don't think I have the stuff; I definitely know that I do. It's just a matter of picking it up and learning it now to help me later on down the line.''

Arbuckle wants Bisenius and some of the other up-and-coming pitchers in the system to get the proper work now rather than look too far ahead too soon.

If Bisenius continues progressing at his current pace, Arbuckle believes he would be far enough along at the start of the 2009 season to take over the closer role. In the meantime, Bisenius might start the season with the Phillies until Jon Lieber comes off the disabled list. He then will head to Triple A Ottawa, but could get a few major league innings later in the season.

"A lot of his progression will depend on how quickly his command will come along,'' Arbuckle said.

The Phillies organization doesn't typically groom its minor league pitchers to become closers. However, Arbuckle said in addition to Bisenius getting some starts on the minor league level, he also would be put into some ninth-inning situations Ottawa to boost his comfort level.

Bisenius seems to have a great understanding of the makeup you need to be a successful closer.

"There's nothing you can really do off the field,'' he said "You just pretty much have to go out there and try it. You can't just throw bullpen sessions and think you got your work in. You actually have to be put in that situation, that's the only way you're really going to get any better or see improvement.''

Pitching coach Rich Dubee said that when evaluating closer candidates, he looks for someone with command of his pitches and poise on the mound.

"Presence is a vital part of this game,'' he said. "The guys that are generally successful in this game are the guys that don't panic. So far, from what I see from Joe, he's been handling himself great.'' *

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