The issue of who is closing games for the Phillies in 2012 figures to be one that lingers deep into the winter. The market is flush with closing options and it could take some time before the first team blinks, signs one to a lucrative contract, and sets the market value.
In Sunday's Inquirer, we wrote about the dilemma the Phillies face. Ruben Amaro Jr. has made few things clear in the weeks following the Phillies' defeat, but one was that he craves a veteran closer for his staff.
They would like Ryan Madson to be that pitcher. Of course, forming a match between the two sides is easier said than done.
So what else is there? A passage from Sunday's column:
With Madson, Jonathan Papelbon stands at the top of the class. But after Boston's historic tumble and tumultuous fallout, they will be a team desperate for stability and familiarity. Papelbon is probably staying there.
Heath Bell is a player the Phillies took interest in 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, a type of personality the Phillies have steered clear from 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.
Of that group, Nathan is an intriguing name. He's effectively in the same situation as Brad Lidge. Both are recently removed from serious injuries. Both have $12.5 million options that will be declined. Both have seen better days.
So why not just bring Lidge back if we're talking about Nathan? Well, for one, Nathan still can throw his fastball. His average velocity was 92.3 m.p.h.; a few ticks off from 2009 (93.6 m.p.h.). Lidge's average fastball velocity was 88.9 m.p.h.; a 5.4 m.p.h. average drop from the magical 2008 season.
More importantly, Lidge decided he would simply not throw his fastball. He threw 71.9 percent sliders, by far the most of any pitcher in the majors. Lidge's 90 percent strand rate in 2011 was admirable, but most likely not sustainable for a period greater than 19 1/3 innings.
Nathan is no longer a ground ball pitcher and his home run rate spiked in 2011. When he was at his best in 2007-08, he induced a high rate of grounders. And 11.5 percent of the fly balls he allowed in 2011 went for home runs. That's a staggering rate that could normalize. Or being in Citizens Bank Park could exacerbate it.
Nathan would be cheap. He could be the stopgap for a few months while one of the younger arms builds trust with the staff and assumes the closer role later in the season. Any of those other free agent closers would command more money and possibly more than one year. That's an investment, given the strength of the young relief corps, the Phillies need not make.
What about other relievers available who weren't closers in 2010? The Rays executed that philosophy to perfection last winter. They signed a handful of veteran relievers on the cheap and let them compete for the closer's job. Kyle Farnsworth, who had all of one save in the previous four seasons combined, saved 25 games with a 2.18 ERA.
Nathan's K/9 and BB/9 compares with the traits the Rays sought in available free agents last winter. Only five possible free agent relievers (minimum 40 innings) posted a K/9 greater than 8.0 and a BB/9 less than 3.0: Madson, Papelbon, Nathan, Octavio Dotel and Yoshinori Tateyama.
Thirty-two total relievers posted a K/9 greater than 8.0 and BB/9 less than 3.0 and Nathan's 4.84 ERA is the worst by far among the group. That, you'd think, would mean he's due for a better clip if he maintains his peripheral stats. Or it means he's cooked.
Hey, maybe Amaro can coax Billy Wagner from retirement. (That's actually sort of a serious idea.)
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