One of the more pressing issues facing the Phillies' front office this off season is the fate of Ryan Madson, the home-grown starter-turned-relief-pitcher-turned-free-agent-closer.
The right hander, after his permanent move to the bullpen in 2006, has blossomed into one of the finest relief pitchers in baseball, with a 2.89 ERA and 8.6 K/9 over his last five seasons, and figures to get rewarded handsomely for his services on the open market.
While the odds are against the Phillies to re-sign the 31-year-old, thanks to a thin market for power pitchers, other team’s propensity to overpay for saves, and the fact that his agent is Scott Boras, they and their fans shouldn’t look at that as a bad thing. Quite the opposite, actually.
The thing about closing pitchers is that they are a dime a dozen. With the exception of the Mariano Rivera's of the world, they are interchangeable with a few other guys in the bullpen (that is, if a team is lucky enough to have a deep ‘pen). But traditional baseball wisdom being what it is, teams don’t build their bullpen around a bunch of arms that can be used whenever, but around specific roles. Roles like “setup man” or “lefty specialist” or “closer.” And because of that, overpaying for a guy who pitches in the ninth inning because he has a lot of saves has become the norm.
In that regard, the Phillies would be wise to let Madson go the way of the Jayson Werth, because they’d be better off if they put that money to use elsewhere. Namely, not in a ninth-inning arm. However, as Josh Alper pointed out, Ruben Amaro, Jr. seems to be rather keen on signing what he referred to as a “proven closer.” And that sort of thinking is dangerous, and potentially expensive.
It’s another one of those baseball sayings like “he’s clutch” or “he plays the game the right way.” It sounds nice, but it really doesn’t mean anything, because before someone was a “proven closer,” they weren’t a proven closer. They were just a middle reliever that was never given a chance.
It sounds silly, but it was just a few months ago that Madson was the victim of this same line of criticism when the notion of him taking the ninth inning arose. His own pitching coach questioned his ability to handle the closer's role, and even mockingly asked if he took a crash course in closing. That was followed by Charlie Manuel handing the job over to Jose Contreras -- a 39-year-old who, until 2011, was never really a closer.
Unless it’s Rivera, there are very few closers who are ironclad and bulletproof. But even then, I’m sure Rivera had his own critics before he took over the ninth inning for the New York Yankees after John Wetteland left town. If Twitter existed in 1997, you can be sure that at least 25 percent of Yankees fans would have been adamant against Mariano Rivera becoming the closing pitcher in favor of someone who was “proven.”
I wrote about this for The Fightins earlier this year, after Madson blew a save to the Washington Nationals. Despite the fact that Madson had very few bad outings, there was a sentiment that he lacked a “closer’s mentality” and that he was not suited for the role. That was in light of the fact that he has been the Phillies best relief pitcher for the past three seasons, and has never really been given a fair shake to handle the ninth inning, because Charlie Manuel was more likely to go to “his guy,” despite the fact that his guy was Brad Lidge.
In truth, the Phillies don't need Madson to return. While bringing him back would be preferable, it makes little sense to break the bank on such a relatively inconsequential piece. Indeed, closing pitchers can be prone to wild swings of effectiveness, and it's a gamble whenever a team decides to commit a large chunk of their salary to a guy who will pitch all of 70 or so innings over the course of a season.
And it's not as if the Phillies need to look on the market, either. Unless they want to plug a hole with a long relief or situational lefty, they have all the pieces that they need in-house, thanks to a bevy of young arms that won't cost anything. They've seen what Antonio Bastardo can do when he isn't being overused, and young arms like Justin De Fratus and Philippe Aumont figure to play a pivotal role in the 'pen in 2012, and should not be overlooked when it comes to finishing games.
If the Phillies can manage to find a “proven closer” for a cheap price, then I’m all for it. But when saves are at a premium, they are better served to spend that cash elsewhere, because a big bullpen signing in December can turn into a money pit before June.
READ: Josh Alper's take on the "proven" closer market.