The scene is one of those random outtakes of life that sticks in your mind like an old postcard. Interior: the marbeled interior of the St. Regis Resort in Monarch Beach, Calif. Behind me, a lobby opens out onto a patio that opens out onto the wide blue blanket of the Pacific, it's breeze wafting over leather sofas and carrying with it the smell of premium blend coffee. Three weeks beforehand, the resort played host to a group of executives from AIG, which might not have been such a big deal if the company had not just accepted an $85 billion loan from the federal government in order to avoid collapsing under the weight of bad debt. The ensuing crap storm might have caused baseball to do some soul-searching in a time when the economy was headed south and owners were trying to rein in payroll spending. The next year, the GM meetings were held at the O'Hare Hilton.
I was standing outside a pack of media that was busy shouting out questions about Mark Teixeira and Derek Lowe and Manny Ramirez, all of which were answered without hesitation by the man at the center of it all. At the time, Ryan Madson's arbitration eligibility did not seem like it would be at the top of Scott Boras' list of concerns. Certainly, none of the other reporters cared that the Phillies' set-up man was heading into what could have been his final season before free agency. So I waited for the session to break up, which only took about 12 hours, then sidled up to Boras as he glided down another hallway. I asked him what he thought of Madson, what his market value might be on the heels of his dominant performance in the Phillies' run to the World Series. I expected to get something generic, maybe a little bit of insight I could plug into a notebook at some point down the road. Instead, I got gold.
Mariano Rivera, circa 1996 was how Boras described Madson. I don't think I laughed out loud. At least I hope I didn't. Madson hadn't even established himself as the Phillies' regular set-up man until August. He was talented, no doubt. But Rivera? Rivera was the best reliever to every play the game, a guy who in 1996 threw 107 2/3 innings with a 2.09 ERA and 10.9 strikeouts per nine out of the bullpen. For crying out loud, he finished third in the Cy Young voting despite saving just five games.
Four years later, I'm not ready to say that Boras was correct in his assessment. Rivera's career ERA over 17 seasons is lower than Madson's best ERA in a single season. But I am ready to say that Madson is the best back-of-the-bullpen arm available in a market that also features Jonathan Papelbon and Francisco Rodriguez (another Boras client, by the way), and that the Phillies, who are closing in on a deal worth a reported $44 million over four years, are doing the right thing.
You can make a strong case against that statement. Madson's statistical track record runs third. Rodriguez is a year younger than him or Papelbon, both of whom will be 31 next season. But if I'm a general manager, Madson is the guy I feel most comfortable giving a monster long-term deal. Papelbon's reliance on his mid-90's fastball, which he throws 75 percent of the time, and his fly-ball tendencies would scare me. We've seen what happens when power pitchers start to lose their velocity. And Papelbon does not throw his splitter enough to make me feel comfortable about how he might adapt once his body starts to sap his strength. Rodriguez's declining peripherals and messy end to his Mets tenure counts for something, even though he remains a lights-out closer. Madson, like Rivera, is a former starter. Madson, like Rivera, has one of the filthiest pitches in the game. Madson, like Rivera, does not rely on a slider or curveball. He has nice, smooth, easy motion that looks like it will age well. A good change-up can last a long time in this game. Just look at Trevor Hoffman. If I'm willing to spend big money on a reliever this offseason, it is Madson or it is no one.
Two weeks ago, I would have said that the Phillies should choose "no one." I remain steadfast in my belief that Closer is the most over-valued position in professional sports. Note I said over-valued, not over-rated. We've all seen how important a dominant ninth inning guy can be. But we've also over-estimated the difficulty of finding a guy who can do the job. Look at Adam Wainwright during the Cardinals' first World Series run, or Bobby Jenks, or even Antonio Bastardo this season. In a way, the position is a lot like the running back in the NFL. Adrian Peterson and Steven Jackson are worth every penny they will ever make. But they are special breeds. And just because a guy like Larry Johnson can run off a few 1,500-yard seasons in a row doesn't put him in that class. Larry Johnson has five or six or seven guys paving the way for him. In a good system with a good offensive line, most backs with strength and burst are going to succeed.
Look at the Denver Broncos of the late-90's and early 2000's. It's the same with closers. As long as you have a good fastball and the ability to locate it, you can succeed in the role. The very nature of the role says that you are pitching with a lead, with the opponent's back against the wall. I'm not saying it is easy. But it isn't a magical skill. It is not walking people, not giving up home runs, and striking guys out. And even then, there are a lot more important aspects of a championship team. Look no further than Kyle Farnsworth's performance with the Rays this season, or the fact that the Phillies came within two wins of a World Series title the same year their closer had one of the worst years every by a reliever, and they lost in the first round this year with a dominant Madson against a Cardinals team that had Jason Motte throwing 95 mile-per-hour fastballs like a batting cage pitching machine. A closer is like a cherry on top of a sundae. It's a valuable thing to have, but the ice cream and chocolate sauce are a hell of a lot more important. A pint of Ben and Jerry's is more expensive than a jar of cherries because cherries grown on trees. I'm not really sure if that analogy makes any sense at all, but humor me.
All of this is a incongruous way to introduce the argument that the Phillies are correct in their belief that they need to pony up big bucks for Madson. But after a week of looking at their alternatives, I'm starting to think that spending $11 million a year on their newly emancipated reliever might be their best option.
Simply put: the Phillies cannot afford to have an unreliable bullpen, and there are few reliable options who aren't at the top of the market.
Joe Nathan is a name that has been mentioned, but the Twins closer pitched on back-to-back days just three times all season and back-to-back-to-back days once. Of his 31 appearances after a stint on the DL, 18 came on at least two days of rest.
Nathan, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, seemed to get some more life on his fastball in the later stages of the season. He has plenty of upside. But heading into the season with him and Bastardo at the back of the 'pen would be a huge risk.
Even riskier would be Chad Qualls, who pitched in spacious Petco Park last season and posted a 4.40 ERA in the final four months of the season.
Francisco Cordero gets a lot of groundballs, but his strikeout rate has plummeted along with the life on his fastball. Again, a good third option, but a huge risk as the basket that carries all of your eggs.
Look, there are a number of different ways to build a bullpen capable of winning a World Series on the cheap. But all of them seem to start with a young core of cost-effective power arms, usually home-grown. For the Giants in 2010, that meant Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla. For the Braves, it means Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrell and Eric O'Flaherty. Even the Yankees complement big-money closer Mariano Rivera and a big-money set-up man Rafael Soriano with young hurlers like David Robertson, Boone Logan and Hector Noesi (or, in their 2009 title year, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Phil Coke). For the Cardinals this year, it was Jason Motte, Fernando Salas and Mitchell Boggs.
The Phillies don't have that. Maybe next year they will. But right now, it is Antonio Bastardo and a bunch of green-horns. Mike Stutes faded down the stretch, but he has top-shelf stuff and should benefit from his trial by fire in 2011. David Herndon's strikeout rate jumped last year, but he gave up too many home runs and walks for a guy who is a groundball pitcher without strikeout stuff. There is some serious potential at Triple-A, where the organization is high on both Justin De Fratus and Phillippe Aumont. But the two have combined for five big league appearances. Lefty Joe Savery showed some potential, but he has been a reliever for all of a half a season.
That's a lot different from the situations the Cardinals and Giants enjoyed at the start of the last two seasons.
Bastardo and Stutes are a good start. But if the Phillies hope to take some pressure off of their rotation in the early months of the season, they clearly need to add (or re-sign) a couple of veteran arms who Manuel will be comfortable calling upon in the seventh, eighth or ninth innings. That means pitchers with strikeout stuff with command that is not a liability.
In 2011, the bullpen logged an NL-low 412 innings and 144 appearances while posting a 3.45 ERA that ranked seventh in the league. But those numbers are deceptive when it comes to the strain on the Phillies' top relievers. Due to injuries to Lidge and Jose Contreras, Madson and Antonio Bastardo spent the bulk of the season as the only two options in the eighth and ninth inning. In previous seasons, the Phillies had at least one right-handed veteran (Chad Durbin, Chan Ho Park, Jose Contreras) and one left-handed veteran (J.C. Romero, Scott Eyre) to give Manuel some reliable options in front of Lidge and Madson. But with Contreras on the shelf for most of the season and Lidge joining the fold only at the end, the bulk of the heavy-lifting was left to Madson, Bastardo and rookie righthander Mike Stutes. Those three pitchers accounted for 77 of the team's 114 save situations. No other reliever logged more than nine appearances in save situations. By comparison, the Phillies had five relievers with at least 16 save situations in 2010 and 2008.
If the game was tight, Madson and Bastardo were the two options Manuel trusted most. Of Madson's 62 appearances, 21 were on back-to-back days and another 17 were on one day of rest. But Madson is used to that type of regimen. Bastardo and Stutes, on the other hand, were experiencing their first extended action in a big league bullpen. Beyond them, Manuel simply did not have many options that he trusted when the game was within striking distance. The bullpen finished third-to-last in the league with an abysmal 2.01 strikeout-to-walk ratio and finished 10th with a .369 slugging percentage allowed. With Lidge and Contreras largely out of commission and Romero and Danys Baez released, Madson was the only veteran option. In front of him and Bastardo and Stutes were Kyle Kendrick and David Herndon, two sinker-ballers without the kind of swing-and-miss stuff you need in late-and-close situations.
The result was two-fold: an over-reliance on Madson and Bastardo, and a tendency to push the starters as far as they could go in order to avoid exposing the front of the bullpen. Neither situation appeared to play a huge role in the Phillies' early departure from the playoffs. Madson and Bastardo's workload wasn't excessive when compare to other bullpens. Roy Halladay was his usual self in the postseason. And it is hard to say that Cliff Lee's struggles in Game 2 were the result of his regular season workload.
At the same time, things worked out perfectly last season for the top of the rotation, which usually is not the case. It would be foolish to count on Halladay, Lee and Hamels all logging at least 216 innings again. Can they? Sure. But the Phillies already have some question marks at No. 4 and No. 5 in the rotation (Can Vance Worley repeat his rookie success? Will Joe Blanton be healthy and effective? Where does Kyle Kendrick fit in?). Even a month-long DL stint by one of the Three Aces would be tough to overcome, let alone a more significant injury. Plus, the goal is to have these guys fresh for the last two months of the season.
Although there are a lot of names on the market, their value starts to disappear when you look closely at them.