As the 2009 regular season comes to a close, the Phillies have secured their third consecutive NL East title. Coupled with a devastating lineup that features four 30-home run men and a pitching staff loaded with the game's top southpaws, the Phillies appear to be in prime position to contend for a second straight World Series Championship.
Possibly. It all depends on the closer.
Last season, the Phillies were able to win their division and advance through the playoffs with relative ease due in large part to Brad Lidge's historic perfect season.
Not so much.
Lidge's 11 blown saves leaves him three short of the single-season major league record.
His 7.34 ERA ranks dead last among all closing pitchers in the major leagues.
In fact, in the history of baseball, only four pitchers have pitched in as many games as Brad Lidge (63) and posted an ERA higher.
Those three pitchers would be Jesse Orosco (7.75 ERA in 2003 for two teams), Alan Embree (7.62 in 2005 for two teams), Javier Lopez (7.52 for the 2004 Colorado Rockies), and Mike Munoz (7.42 for the 1995 Colorado Rockies).
The difference between those four pitchers and Lidge?
Orosco, Embree, Lopez, and Munoz were situational lefties. Lidge is a closer. The Phillies rely on Lidge when it counts the most. He's not a guy who comes in to face a power-hitting lefty with two on and two outs in the seventh inning.
The first three finished a combined 57 games all season. Lidge has finished 54. That means Lidge is being put out there with the game on the line, and he has failed over and over again.
Lidge has frustrated an entire fan base who handed him the key to the city after his amazing performance last season.
In 2008, his first season with the Phillies after an up-and-down roller coaster ride with the Houston Astros, Lidge converted all 41 of his save attempts in the regular season. He was then seven-for-seven in the postseason, while leading the Phillies to the team's first World Championship in 28 seasons.
The image of a triumphant Brad Lidge kneeling on the ground – arms raised in the air – following his winning strike is one that will live in Philadelphia lore forever and ever.
That makes Lidge's 2009 struggles all the more painful.
We as fans know he is better than this. Heading into this year, we didn't expect a repeat of his 1.95 ERA from last year. I envisioned Lidge posting an ERA in the mid-threes while converting close to 90 percent of his saves.
An ERA nearly four times last year and a save percentage (73.8) that ranks dead last among all regular closers is absurd.
Lidge has struggled with his pitch location, his control, that once-devastating slider, and his head. Lidge is a mental pitcher—as are most closers—but this season has really gotten to him.
Last year, I loved watching Brad Lidge pitch. Those slim one-run ninth inning leads were where Lidge established his dominance. Sure, he might get into a little bit of trouble, but he always escaped unharmed.
In the division-clinching game, Lidge loaded the bases with one out but escaped the jam with a miraculous game-ending double play, keeping his perfect season intact.
Lidge just hasn't had it.
I remember my reaction after Lidge blew his first save, back in mid-April. It was almost relief. I knew Lidge wasn't going to be perfect again, and it was shocking to see our World Series hero fail (especially in the way that he did, yielding four runs on two hits and two walks in just two-thirds of an inning).
However, I figured Lidge would settle down and regain his form that made him one of baseball's most dominant pitchers last season.
His second blown save didn't come for nearly a month after the first, but when he blew back-to-back saves once in late May and again in early June, Phillies fans like myself began to feel resentment to Lidge.
Lidge plodded along, racking up the blown saves while we campaigned for his closer role to be revoked.
Along the way, Ryan Madson—perhaps the most underrated setup man in baseball over the past several seasons—had his opportunity to close games, but Madson couldn't get it done, converting just eight of 14 opportunities.
As we head toward the playoffs, the role of closer becomes all the more a pressing issue for a Phillies team that—barring a historic collapse—is destined for its third straight National League East division title.
Who should close games in the postseason for this club? Lidge? Madson? Someone else?
Teams do not win in the playoffs without a reliable closer. Look at the Yankees when they were winning three straight titles and four out of five.
Mariano Rivera was arguably the greatest pitcher alive during that run. He was untouchable in the playoffs, and the Yankees absolutely would not have won those titles without him.
Same with Lidge last season. I highly doubt the Phillies would be reigning World Champions had Lidge not enjoyed a season for the ages.
He isn't getting it done though, so who should close? Let's break down the bullpen:
Ryan Madson: He seems like he would be the best option. He can throw the heat (97 miles per hour), which coupled with a devastating changeup, makes Madson a top-notch relief pitcher. There are few setup men in baseball better than Madson (26 holds, 3.18 ERA)
But he has proven he can't close games either. In his brief stints as a closer, Madson has failed 38 percent of the time—actually a significantly higher percentage than Lidge.
Madson as a closer: 7.91 ERA
Madson as a setup: 2.26 ERA
Madson in 2009: 3.18 ERA
Madson is one of the more valuable setup men in the game, as evidenced by his 2.26 ERA in non-save situations. Just don't count on him to get the final three outs.
Brett Myers: Brett Myers has experience as a closer. He served as our primary closer in 2007, converting 21 of 24 attempts (88 percent), including the final strike to win the NL East title. He has the stuff to make it happen for the Phillies, and I think he is our best option.
If he can get healthy.
Myers has been injured for the majority of the season. He has returned briefly but as of now is unable to pitch. He would be the ideal option for this team but it depends on his health.
J.C. Romero: Romero is one of the best left-handed relief pitchers in all of the major leagues. He was vital down the stretch for the Phillies in their NL East championship in 2007 and the winning pitcher in Game Five of the World Series last season before he missed most of this season due to a suspension and subsequent injuries.
That being said, even if he were healthy, I wouldn't want Romero to close out ballgames for the Phillies. He is a great left-handed specialist but I don't think he has the mentality or the stuff to close out ball games.
Scott Eyre: Another left-handed specialist in the Phillies' bullpen. Eyre is one of the most underrated pitchers in all of baseball. Since the start of May, Eyre has pitched in 25.2 innings for the Phillies and yielded just one run – an ERA of 0.35!
Again with Eyre, he is much more valuable as a left-handed specialist, and Eyre's current injuries will prevent him from pitching for a little anyway.
Chan Ho Park: I never would have thought I would consider him—especially after he couldn't even hold onto the No. 5 starting spot early in the season—but Park has settled down and really become a dependable relief pitcher for the Phillies.
Park has a 4.43 ERA for the season. As a relief pitcher, his ERA is 2.57 and he has registered 13 holds. Park strikes out a high percentage of hitters, doesn't walk too many, and hasn't given up a home run yet since his move to the bullpen.
Definitely a candidate.
Tyler Walker: A very very plausible option. Walker is a veteran relief pitcher with closing experience. He saved 23 of 28 opportunities for the Giants in 2005, filling in for injured closer Armando Benitez.
This season, Walker has posted a 3.24 ERA for the Phillies in 33.1 innings pitched. He strikes out a high ratio of batters (7.0 per nine innings) and has a near-3:1 strikeout to walk ratio.
Walker is also the only pitcher in major league history to enter the ninth inning with the bases loaded and no one out, strike out all three batters, and not allow a run.
Clay Condrey: Condrey is a very dependable relief pitcher, serving as one of the Phillies' primary middle relievers. He has posted a 3.02 ERA in 44 games this season.
Condrey has never been used in save situations, and I don't think he is the solution. He is a solid reliever but I wouldn't want to pitch him with the game on the line.
Chad Durbin: Durbin is a solid middle relief pitcher, like Condrey, but he just hasn't been as effective in 2009 as he was in 2008.
Durbin 2008: 5-4, 2.87 ERA, 1.80 K:BB, 1.323 WHIP
Durbin 2009: 1-2, 4.46 ERA, 1.32 K:BB, 1.485 WHIP
Durbin just hasn't been the reliable pitcher in 2009 that he was in 2008, and I wouldn't put him in save situations.
Jack Taschner: Just a left-handed specialist. Taschner has a 5.08 ERA for the season. He allows nearly two baserunners per inning and he has no experience as a closer. I'll pass...
Sergio Escalona: A rookie with a 5.25 ERA and just a dozen career innings pitched. Not who I want to see facing Albert Pujols with the game on the line in the NLDS.
Pedro Martinez: Now onto the starters. Pedro was signed by the team after the All-Star break and has filled in admirably as a low-risk signing. Martinez's ERA in nine starts is 3.63 and he has posted a 5-1 record for the defending World Champions.
Moving him to the bullpen wouldn't be too bad of a move. Martinez is an 18-year veteran who knows what it takes to win. He's turned into a smart finesse pitcher who gets hitters out with his mind.
The only problem is his age and durability. I can't envision Martinez being able to warm up too quickly and pitch every day. He is a starter, even at this point in his career, and moving him to the bullpen would not be the best option.
J.A. Happ: Happ is just a rookie, but it's difficult for me to believe that. He has handled everything thrown at him this season with class and a whole lot of poise.
This season alone, Happ lost his fifth starter spot, moved to the bullpen, moved back to the rotation and became arguably the team's most reliable starting pitcher, dealt with trade rumors all of July, overcame an injury, and now is being rumored to move to the bullpen to be the team's closer in the postseason.
Happ is one of the top lefties in the game, as evidenced by his 12-4 record, 2.85 ERA, and league-leading two shutouts.
Cole Hamels/Cliff Lee/Joe Blanton: Our No. 1, 2, and 3 starters in the playoffs. No way any of them moves to the bullpen.
My Verdict: It's not an easy decision.
I don't think Madson is ideal to close out games. I like him way too much as a setup man. Park just isn't quite good enough. Walker might have been a solid pick, but he gave up a two-run home run with two outs in the ninth inning of a tie game last week, and now I have my doubts about him.
That leaves Myers or Happ.
Too very possible options.
Myers is probably my initial choice, but his injuries have prevented him from pitching consistently for a little white. He has experience and he has proven he can handle the job. It's tough to argue with that.
If he can stay healthy.
If not, I say go with Happ. Happ might be a rookie by MLB's standards, but he sure has played up to his potential this season. With a rotation that is most likely to feature Hamels, Lee, Blanton, and Martinez, Happ might be the odd man out.
Putting Happ in the rotation would be an overkill of lefties and I don't see Martinez as much use in the bullpen. I think leaving Martinez as our No. 4 starter in the playoffs and converting Happ to closer might be the wisest choice.
That is, unless Charlie Manuel decides to stick with Brad Lidge.
We'll find out in less than a week...