This is an argument I’ve been making for close to a year, and while I’ve hinted at it, in both my post on Domonic Brown’s future and in my season review of Antonio Bastardo, but the Phillies have a need that might run counter to the big-splash mentality by which Ruben Amaro has seemed to run this team since taking over. With Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson entering free agency, the Phillies find themselves without a proven closer heading into the offseason. This presents a rather different conundrum for the team than does Jimmy Rollins‘ impending free agency or even Roy Oswalt‘s. This free agent class is unbelievably weak at shortstop and in starting pitching, which are, of course, two areas where many teams with designs on a playoff berth in 2012 have great need.
For shortstops, it’s Jose Reyes, then Rollins, then Marco Scutaro and Alex Gonzalez. That’s it. Almost every other free agent shortstop is either a replacement-level player or close to it, and if you’re going to put a bad player on the field, better to get that lack of production from a cheap source, such as Wilson Valdez , than to pay a premium to get the same production from a bigger name, say, Yuniesky Betancourt. For pitchers, CC Sabathia seems like he’ll opt out of his contract and re-sign with the Yankees, which leaves Oswalt–whose status for 2012 is still not certain–along with C.J. Wilson, Yu Darvish, and a littany of former stars (Aaron Harang, Brandon Webb, Jeff Francis, and others) to whom time and chance have been so unkind that they resemble their former selves only in appearance. Francis and Webb, who faced off in Game 1 of the 2007 NLCS, are no more ace starters than the sunken wreckage of the U.S.S. Arizona is a functioning ship of the line. That message seems to have reached the Phillies’ front office clearly.
However, this free agent class features a surfeit of proven closers. Even if the Phillies don’t re-sign Madson, they have Jose Valverde, Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, Frank Francisco…if the Phillies want to splash big money to buy someone who’s racked up impressive save totals in recent years, they certainly won’t lack the opportunity.
But spending big money on a relief pitcher is a sucker’s bet, and the Phillies, who tend to be very hit (Roy Halladay, Chase Utley) or miss (Ryan Howard, Brad Lidge, Placido Polanco, depending on who you ask) with their long-term contracts would be extremely foolhardy to sign any relief pitcher to a multi-year deal.
First of all, it’s a bad idea to sign a relief pitcher to a long-term contract because quality relief pitching varies so much from year-to-year. Unless you’re Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman, it’s really difficult to be a dominant reliever over long periods of time. The Phillies, in the past 20 years, really ought to know this better than anyone. Ricky Bottalico posted a 2.7-WAR season in 1995 as a setup man, then back-to-back 34-save seasons in 1996 and 1997, where he was a competent, if not Eckersleian, relief ace. Then, at age 28, he melted down to a disastrous 6.44 ERA in 1998 and was never anything more than a fringy bullpen arm for the rest of his career.
Jose Mesa was one of the best closers in the game in the mid-1990s with Cleveland, posting an astronomical 4.4-win season in the shortened 1995 season, when the Indians went 100-44 and Mesa finished second in the Cy Young voting. Then, after two years of regression, he suffered Biblically awful season in 1998, 1999, and 2000 before inexplicably rediscovering his schwerve for two years in Philly, at which point he totally lost it again.
Tom Gordon: great closer for Boston in 1998, ranged from above-average to terrible from 1999 to 2003, then, in his mid-30s, he enjoyed a three-year renaissance with the Yankees and Phillies where he pitched the best ball of his life. But by 2007, the magic was gone for good.
Brad Lidge: dominant with the Astros as both a setup man and closer until 2005, then he melted down in 2006, returned to form in 2008, and was never the same after that. His 2009 was among the worst seasons in major league history, and even when he was effective after that, Lidge needed to dance between the raindrops, his health hanging by a thread and his effectiveness balancing on the edge of a knife. Again, like Bottalico, Mesa, and Gordon, all of this happened without warning in any case.
It’s not the Phillies alone who have suffered the vagaries of the disappearing closer: Eric Gagne, who was for 18 months the best reliever ever to walk the face of the earth, dropped off the map faster than you can say les lunettes de sport. Jason Isringhausen followed eight seasons of 22 or more saves with a 5.70 ERA in 2008.
The fact of the matter is that relief pitchers are subject to the same forces exerted on other players: age, injury, team situation, and so on. But they walk a finer line than, say third basemen or outfielders because they face so few hitters per year. So even great pitchers can have aberrant seasons, while mediocre relievers can, for a year, channel Walter Johnson (see: Chad Durbin, 2008).
Because the level of variance is so great, and because every top-shelf reliever on the free agent market, with the exception of Francisco Rodriguez (who comes with his own baggage), is already on the wrong side of 30, I’d shy away from signing any of them to a big-money, long-term contract. And think about it–if Papelbon or Valverde hits the free agent market, why would strong teams with money like the Red Sox and Tigers let such a valuable asset go?
What makes it worse is potential draft pick compensation for a proven closer. Jonathan Papelbon, Matt Capps, and Jose Valverde are all would-be Type A free agents, which means that the Phillies would surrender their first-round pick to sign any one of them. In fact, the Blue Jays have been gaming this system for years, signing relievers to one-year deals, offering them arbitration, and collecting draft picks the way hoarders collect packets of Sweet & Low.
So what’s the alternative? The Phillies have several.
The first is to realize that the Phillies have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to young guys who throw hard. Make Antonio Bastardo the closer. But what if Tony No-Dad fails? Then give Mike Stutes a shot. If Stutes fails, you’ve got Justin De Fratus. If De Fratus fails, you’ve got Michael Schwimer. If Schwimer fails, you’ve got Phillippe Aumont. That’s five young, cheap arms with roughly the same amount of major leauge experience that Craig Kimbrel had going into 2011, which is to say not very much. The odds of all five of those guys turning into total turkeys is minuscule. Given the chance, at least one of them will close games for you–that I can almost guarantee.
The flip side of this is even though giving up big money and draft picks for a closer is inadvisable, the free agent market is still very much open. There’s a saying in baseball that there’s no such thing as a bad one-year contract, which rings particularly true for a rich team like the Phillies. With a one-year contract, even a bad one, any mistake or failed gamble will be gone and buried by the end of the season, which opens up some interesting possibilities for veteran arms. Joe Nathan, for instance, could be had on a one-year deal if the Phillies think he can bounce back from injury. The market is lousy with veteran lefties who, if they pay out, could be great, and if they don’t, could be waived. Mike Gonzalez, for instance, as well as Hideki Okajima, Javier Lopez, or George Sherrill. Certainly none of those are sure bets, but they all represent a relatively small commitment of resources, and really, how sure a bet is Jose Valverde anyway?
So that’s the smart way to construct a bullpen. I don’t expect it to actually play out this way, because I think Ruben Amaro is precisely the kind of person who would spend $39 million (including the buyout) over three years on a mostly worthless Brad Lidge, watch it blow up spectacularly in his own face, then turn around and sign another thirtysomething reliever with a spotty history to a long-term, big-money deal. Money is a finite resource, and while the Phillies have lots of it, whatever money they’d spend on a closer would better be used elsewhere.
Neither do I honestly expect to persuade any of you, because coming to a logical conclusion backed by empirical evidence does not appear to be the way sports arguments work. Mostly, I want it on the record, on the internet somewhere, that I think signing a closer is a terrible idea, so when, in 2015, the Phillies are on the hook for (to bring the battleship metaphor full circle) $18 million worth of useless, scuttled Jonathan Papelbon wreckage and can’t free up the payroll to make the move they need to catch the Nats, I can link back to this post and say I told you so.