I don’t know about most Philadelphia Phillie fans, but I am still not content with the team’s options in the closer role.
I’m not sure if it is because of the Phillies’ climbing payroll or simply because there is no one else on the market, but so far General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has decided to let his team ride on some questionable arms at the back of its pen.
We will start at the beginning. Brad Lidge came into camp as the team’s No. 1 closer. However, after yet another shoulder problem before the start of the season, he was placed on the disabled list and has been there ever since. Even when he does come back, can Manager Charlie Manuel really trust him to step right in and get the job done? From what the recent past has shown, I don’t think he can.
Next the team turned to Jose Contreras - a starter turned reliever who made the switch roughly three years ago. Contreras did a pretty good job (5-for-5, 0 ERs) in the ninth inning before getting hurt himself. He has since returned from the injury, but now serves as the team’s set-up man.
Now the Phils are relying on the fastball-changeup (with a ‘new’ cut-fastball) combo of Ryan Madson. Watching Madson try to close games last year in the absence of Lidge was an adventure to say the least. He closed out five games while blowing five others, leaving almost everybody to believe that he could never be a full-time closer at the big league level. Yet here he is in 2011 with a perfect 13-for-13 line. How long that will last is anyone’s guess.
At the start of the season, even Amaro and pitching coach Rich Dubee didn’t think Madson was the right one for the job. Amaro was quoted as saying, “There's no question that we think that Ryan is a great fit for us, but Ryan has not proven to us he can be a closer in the major leagues. Can that happen? That's possible. Can we necessarily rely on him? I don't think so.” Dubee's words about Madson were even a little more blunt. “Ryan Madson is Ryan Madson. What did he do, take a crash course in how to close or something?” Those quotes don’t really exude confidence if you ask me.
As one can see, none of these options are really the one a team wants to be putting its World Series aspirations on. Sure Lidge had a magical run in 2008, but that is long in the past. Plus, if a pitcher can’t go more than two weeks without experiencing shoulder or elbow soreness then what good is he? Unless something short of a miracle happens, he obviously won’t be the most reliable option come the post-season when every game is a must-win.
I don’t believe that Contreras and Madson are the answer either. Both can be tremendous set-up men, but neither has the stuff to be a lock-down closer. Contreras can be rather wild at times and is known to put guys on base via walks. Madson relies too heavily on two pitches. No one since Eric Gagne has survived in the closer’s role with just a fastball and a changeup. Now-a-days a closer tends to need a mid-90s fastball along with a late-breaking cutter or a sharp, diving breaking-ball.
My advice to the Phillies’ management can be summed up in two words. Heath Bell. Bell has blown just one save in 17 chances so far this year and has struck out 21 batters in 25 innings. Furthermore, he has blown just nine save opportunities in the last three years and six of those blow-ups came in 2009. In that same time period, Lidge has blown 16 saves (11 in 2009) while Madson has blown 11.
The Padres are quickly fading and should become sellers in a month or two. The Phils should do whatever it takes to land Bell. I mean they have already pretty much mortgaged the future for the present with their recent acquisitions of pitchers Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt – all of whom are over the age of 32. The core of the team in Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are all over 31 as well. From the looks of things, this group only has about two or three years left to make some serious runs at a title. Other than lacking a powerful right-handed batter (Thanks Jayson Werth. Enjoy your $126M while winning 65 games a year), why not take care of your only weakness while you still have all of the other pieces in place.
Philadelphia can’t rely on its four main starters to throw complete games come the post-season, especially if some of them will be needed on short rest in a tight series. If the Phils don’t make a move for a stud closer before the deadline, the door may get shut on their championship hopes.