Inside the Phillies: Slot for Phillies closer could be wide open

Posted: October 23, 2011

It's long forgotten, because the decision Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee made at the end of spring training had little consequence in an ultimately disappointing season that was not the bullpen's fault.

But, remember, there was a time the Phillies chose a closer with seven career save opportunities over a pitcher who had more "experience" in the ninth inning. Jose Contreras saved five games in April before his elbow exploded. Ryan Madson assumed the role and converted 32 of 34 saves to disprove the silly notion he was unfit for the ninth inning.

"Ryan Madson is Ryan Madson," Dubee said at the end of spring training. "What did he do, take a crash course in how to close or something?"

Apparently he did. Remove one horrible night in Washington from Madson's ledger and he allowed 10 runs in 60 innings. That's a 1.50 ERA.

Now, that original decision is worth revisiting. Madson is a free agent. The Phillies would like him back in 2012, but the love is conditional. Ruben Amaro Jr. has said few definitive things since the season ended, but one was his desire for a "proven closer" - Madson or not.

"I don't feel comfortable with the guys we have internally," Amaro said. "If Ryan does not sign, we might have to go outside the organization. There are some people in our system who think [Justin] De Fratus or [Phillippe] Aumont can do that. I am not convinced of that yet."

The irony, of course, is that Madson did not fit the bill of "proven closer" before 2011. He was not the staff's first choice to replace Brad Lidge last spring. He is proof, effectively, that good stuff plays the same in the eighth or ninth inning.

Madson will cash in on that success. But the Phillies will not offer the 31-year-old righthander more than a three-year contract. (In the middle of a magical 2008, the offer to a 31-year-old Lidge was three years plus a fourth-year $12.5 million option that will be declined without fanfare in the next week.)

The only pitcher the Phillies have offered more than three guaranteed years to in the Pat Gillick-influenced era is Cliff Lee. Cole Hamels could (should) be the next to receive such honor.

A reliever will not.

Granted, this puts the Phillies at a disadvantage for Madson's services. The California native who happily settled down on the Main Line is eager to test free agency. The most powerful agent in sports, Scott Boras, backs him. There could be a team that will offer Madson four years because he's the best closer option in a dynamic market. A handful of teams need new closers. The free-agent options are not overwhelming.

With Madson, Jonathan Papelbon stands at the top of the class. But after Boston's historic tumble and tumultuous fallout, the Red Sox will be a team desperate for stability and familiarity. Papelbon is probably staying there.

The Phillies took interest in Heath Bell at the trade deadline. But Bell remained in San Diego and has openly spoken about his desire to stay. The Padres have already extended a two-year offer with an option for a third season, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. If there is no agreement there, Bell could still accept salary arbitration and return on a one-year deal.

So that leaves names like Francisco Rodriguez, who has a type of personality the Phillies have avoided in recent years; Jonathan Broxton, a pitcher the Phillies would rather face than acquire; Joe Nathan, 37 years old and only 44 innings removed from major surgery; Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch, who split duties in Toronto; and Matt Capps, who had the second-highest ERA of any pitcher with at least 15 saves.

Those uninspiring options could force the Phillies to think outside the box despite Amaro's proclamation. It's fair that the front office does not feel Antonio Bastardo or De Fratus and Aumont can yet handle the ninth inning. That's not to say by the end of 2012 they won't.

The Tampa Bay Rays rebuilt their bullpen by targeting veteran relievers who were under the radar and who could be signed on the cheap (and for one season). Their solution for closer was Kyle Farnsworth, who saved 25 of 31 games with a 2.18 ERA. He was paid $3.25 million in a one-year deal with an option. No one expected that, but relief pitching is the most fickle job in all of baseball.

In retrospect, one of the great misconceptions before the postseason was that St. Louis had a leaky bullpen. There were times during the regular season that, yes, it was a weakness. But come Oct. 1, Tony La Russa had enough time to discern who was useful, what roles they were best suited for, and whom he could trust the most.

St. Louis began this season with Ryan Franklin as closer. He was paid $3.25 million by the Cardinals in 2011, last pitched a game June 28, and still made more money than the seven combined current relievers.

La Russa never named a "closer" after Franklin's departure. The majority of the save chances fell to Fernando Salas, who converted 24 of 30. Jason Motte, who emerged as the best option late in the season, converted 9 of 13. The Cardinals saved 64 percent of their chances - only Washington, Chicago, and Houston had worse rates in the National League.

The Phillies in 2009 used a closer who posted a 7.21 ERA and blew 11 saves. They still made it to Game 6 of the World Series with Lidge.

When the Cardinals could no longer ride their veteran closer, they turned to a group of high-ceiling, hard-throwing relievers to fill the void. It took a few months to figure out the best combination, but St. Louis won a pennant.

Amaro wants stability in the ninth inning, but committing top dollar and multiple years to a "proven closer" has its risks, too.


Contact staff writer Matt Gelb

at 215-854-2928, mgelb@phillynews.com, or @magelb on Twitter.

 

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