Phillies' closer case not closed yet | Bob Ford

040317_pete-mackanin_1200
Phillies manager Pete Mackanin.

If removing Jeanmar Gomez as the Phillies' regular closer is the right plan for the moment - which is hard to dispute after his ninth-inning meltdown against the Nats - it does make you wonder how good a plan it was to have him in that position at all to start the season.

Gomez did have 37 saves in 2016, but even manager Pete Mackanin admitted there were times when the righthander's record was a lot better than his stuff. Like every time. Gomez is what they call a "contact" pitcher, a fact confirmed by Ryan Zimmerman on Sunday with a three-run home run that turned an easy win into last at-bat nail-biter for the Phils.

Maybe Gomez deserved another chance this year, but having to toss things into the air just a week into the season isn't the best way to build stability on a team that figures to be a quart low on that every day.

Mackanin looks at it another way. There's nothing wrong with reminding young players that roles aren't permanent without performance. A cleanup hitter doesn't have to remain a cleanup hitter if he doesn't earn that spot consistently. A starting pitcher can fall out of the rotation as easily as he fell into it. And, quite obviously, closers who don't close games will find themselves warming up in the fifth inning eventually.

All of that is fine, but another reality is that the Phillies think they can be contenders again in a couple of years and that will only happen if they identify a closer by then. Plugging in Joaquin Benoit, who will be 40 in July, is the kind of stopgap solution that doesn't do much to advance the plot.

Mackanin said the move to Benoit should be viewed as only for the "time being," which means "today" in baseball language. There's nothing to suggest Benoit, who is with his sixth organization in five years, will finish the season as the closer, or even finish the month as the closer, or, for that matter, even finish a game. In 85 career save opportunities, Benoit has 51 saves and 34 blown saves, a percentage that makes Gomez look like Trevor Hoffman. His only real year as a closer was 2013 with the Tigers, who were so impressed with his 24 saves they let him walk in free agency.

Benoit said he was surprised to learn he was the new closer here. "Somebody has to do it," he observed.

Given the Phillies' situation - they're going to struggle to play .500 ball this season, folks - wouldn't it make more sense to do more than just designate a placeholder? Going in another direction might make moves a little more difficult for Mackanin in some other ways, but there isn't going to be progress without pain.

Rather than Benoit, the Phillies have three other options on the roster, all of whom could develop into the closer of the future. They might not as well, but it's a certainty that Benoit won't.

Let's begin with Vince Velasquez, who might be miscast as a starter. At 24, he's probably still too young to give up on as a member of the rotation, but he's an awful lot better the first time through a batting order. In his only start this season, he lasted just four innings and gave up four runs, but he also struck out 10 of the 20 batters he faced. Last season, he had 152 strikeouts in 131 innings.

Understand, it isn't going to happen now. There probably isn't an organization in baseball that would do it now. But I'll take money that Velasquez is at least tried as a closer before his career is over. And right now, tomorrow, he'd be a better closer than Benoit.

Moving to something a little more likely, reliever Edubray Ramos is also going to be a closer someday. His fastball is plenty good enough and he has impressed the Phillies with his progress. But Ramos is a young 24 and the team would rightly worry about pushing him into that spotlight too soon.

Then there is Hector Neris, and he's the one who should have gotten the tap on the shoulder Monday. Mackanin outlined a couple of reasons he didn't make that move. One is that Neris can give him more than just one inning, which adds flexibility to bullpen decisions late in games. The other, according to Mackanin, is that Neris is coming off a good season and he doesn't want to put "unnecessary pressure" on him this quickly.

Well, finding a true closer means finding someone who can handle pressure, and, by the way, Neris will turn 28 in June. If he can't handle it by now, he's the wrong guy, anyway. Plus, the out pitch for Neris is a split-finger fastball and he throws it a lot. Historically, those guys don't last forever. Neris has 148 career strikeouts in 125 innings. Might as well put the splitter to real work.

It could be that all those possibilities are being contemplated by Mackanin, and he doesn't feel the need to make a move for the future until the season has settled into a rhythm. That's his choice. This season is for learning, though, and the only thing we're going to learn about Joaquin Benoit is that he's going to be 40 in July for a reason.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports