"There are two schools of thought: One, Madson could close if Lidge was injured or was not able to do it," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said yesterday. "That would kind of be the natural progression. The other thought process would be, why would you take the best setup guy in the game and move him from that role when Contreras has had the ability to close in the past?"
It makes for an interesting conversation, even if you assume that Lidge overcomes his current case of biceps soreness and enters the 2011 season with the same momentum he rode through the end of 2010. Injuries happen. Injuries in the bullpen seem to happen more frequently than anywhere else.
Even when a closer is healthy, there are days when he is simply too overworked to pitch. In 2008, when Lidge came off the disabled list in the first week of the season and proceeded to convert all 41 of his save opportunities, there were still five occasions in which Charlie Manuel called on somebody else in the ninth inning to record the save.
Which means, almost inevitably, somebody will have to fill in. And the Phillies have two somebodies with the skill set to do just that.
"We'd feel comfortable with either one of them," pitching coach Rich Dubee said.
Focus only on production, and Madson is the obvious choice. Last season, the 30-year-old righthander led all Phillies relievers in ERA (2.55), strikeouts-per-nine-innings (10.9), walks-per-nine-innings (2.2) and walks/hits-per-inning (1.038). Madson's 3.01 ERA from 2007-10 ranks 18th among major league relievers with at least 200 innings pitched. Of the 17 pitchers above him, 13 have saved at least 60 games during that stretch.
Madson surely would welcome the opportunity to prove he can close. He is in the last year of a 3-year, $12 million contract he signed at the end of the 2008 season. Still, a setup man can be just as valuable to a team as a closer, as reflected in some of the contracts doled out over the past couple off seasons (Rafael Soriano: 3 years, $35 million, Mike Gonzalez: 2 years, $12 million; Brandon Lyon: 3 years, $15 million; Joaquin Benoit: 3 years, $16.5 million).
Consider this: Last season, Madson faced the heart of a team's order (we'll define it as No. 3 through No. 6) in 104 of his 217 total plate appearances (47.9 percent) and the bottom of the order in 64 (29.5 percent). Lidge, the closer, faced the heart of the order in 76 of 193 plate appearances (39.4 percent) and the bottom of the order in 70 (36.3 percent).
So Madson, the eighth-inning guy, actually faced a greater percentage of opponents' tougher hitters than Lidge, the ninth-inning guy.
And if Madson is the Phillies' top reliever, at least statistically, and opponents, at least last season, boasted tougher matchups in the eighth inning, why move him to the ninth?
The answer to that question could depend on how you feel about Contreras. A late-offseason signing with a paltry $1.5 million pricetag in 2010, the 39-year-old righthander thrived in his first full season as a reliever, posting a 3.34 ERA, 9.1 K/9, 1.218 WHIP and 2.5 BB/9 in 56 2/3 innings. He also succeeded where Madson has stumbled at times: filling in for Lidge as closer.
Over the last two seasons, Madson has converted 15 of 21 save opportunities (71 percent) when filling in as closer. To put that in perspective, Lidge saved 74 percent of his opportunities during his rough 2009 campaign in which he blew 11 saves and finished with a 7.21 ERA. Last year, Madson's ERA was 4.42 in 21 ninth-inning appearances and 1.52 in 33 eighth-inning appearances.
Madson converted four of his first five saves in 2010, when Lidge started the season on the disabled list. But after blowing a save in San Francisco, he kicked a chair in frustration and broke a big toe, sidelining him for 2-plus months. That opened the door for Contreras, who converted all three of his opportunities in May after Lidge returned to the DL.
"I think Madson can do it, once he gets on a roll and does five or six in a row," Manuel said. "Contreras can do the same thing."
With a blazing fastball and a bedeviling forkball, Contreras has the stuff to close. So does Madson, who complements his fastball with an elusive changeup and a sprinkling of curveballs and cutters.
Neither pitcher has performed in the role for an extended period of time. Does that matter? Is there something to be said about the comfort Madson has shown in his eighth-inning role? Or will talent yield its results regardless of situation over a large enough sample of time?
All are questions the Phillies hope they won't have to answer.
"What direction we'd go if we had to, we don't know," Dubee said. "We're not even thinking about that." *
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