While Billy Wagner plans to take his sweet time choosing between the Phillies and Mets, new GM Pat Gillick faces the prospect of a near-total makeover amongst his relief corps. It's to be hoped that Gillick won't look at the list of possible replacement closers with the creepy delight that Ed Wade likely felt whenever he had the chance to add a late-inning reliever--but then again, the reason this decision is no longer Wade's to make is because he rarely planned ahead. When Plan A didn't work out, he'd just get Paul Abbott or Mike Williams. (The possibility that these guys were Plan A is really too disturbing to contemplate.)
Update [2005-11-26 14:1:17 by dajafi]: As of Nov. 26, several of the relievers we discuss below have been snapped up: Bobby Howry (in whom the Phils were reportedly interested) accepted an offer from the Cubs, and as of today the rumor is that B.J. Ryan is about to take a mammoth deal--5 years, $47 million--from the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Phils began 2005 with essentially the same bullpen back-end they used in '04: Wagner closing, Tim Worrell setting up, Ryan Madson and Rheal Cormier the key middle relievers. By season's end this year, of course, Worrell was in Arizona, Ugueth Urbina was the set-up man, Madson was absolutely gassed (8.31 ERA in September), and Cormier had pitched himself out of anything resembling a high-leverage role. Aaron Fultz was the situational lefty, with Geoff Geary and Aquilino Lopez in the mix as well.
For next year, further change seems almost inevitable. Wagner's status probably won't be determined until around Christmas, Urbina is out of the team's plans, Madson seems likely to get a shot at the rotation, and Fultz is a free agent with, presumably, much greater market appeal than he had a year ago. Thus Gillick faces the difficult task of adding at least one setup man, and quite possibly three late-inning arms.
Below are the top options out there right now--the pedigreed closers and sort-of closers whose mere names likely would have given our previous GM the vapors. Mlb.com has set up a nifty app to track free agent developments; click here for the full list with player status, including links to stats and other pertinent info.
Danys Baez, RHP, 28
2005 numbers: 5-4, 2.86; 72.1 IP, 66 hits, 30 walks, 51 strikeouts; 41 saves/49 opps
Why: Baez has recorded 96 saves in the last three years, and he's young enough that he could get better.
Why not: His K/BB ratio isn't great, and his strikeout rate has declined over the last few years. Perhaps worse, Charlie Manuel is no fan: when the Phils were rumored to be considering a Madson-for-Baez trade this past summer, Manuel reportedly put the kibosh on any such deal, citing bad experiences with Baez in Cleveland.
Octavio Dotel, RHP, Oakland, 32
2005 numbers: 1-2, 3.52; 15.1 IP, 10 hits, 11 walks, 16 strikeouts; 7 saves/11 opps;
Why: Before he got hurt, Dotel had one of the game's nastiest relief arsenals, featuring a high-90s fastball and wicked slider. His career K/9 average is comparable to Wagner's; indeed, it was his excellence (and the development of Brad Lidge) that allowed the Astros to deal Wagner to the Phils in the first place.
Why not: Coming off reconstructive elbow surgery, he could miss the entire 2006 season, so he's not an immediate option in any event. Even before the injury, Dotel didn't take very well to closing: with the Astros and A's in 2004, he blew 9 of 45 save opportunities and posted an ERA almost twice what he'd put up as a setup man--though those 122 strikeouts in 85.1 innings that year were still pretty tasty.
Kyle Farnsworth, RHP, 30
2005 numbers: 1-1, 2.19; 70 IP, 44 hits, 27 walks, 87 strikeouts; 16 saves/18 opps
Why: Sprung from Dusty Baker's Sears Tower-sized doghouse in Chicago, Farnsworth finally put up numbers representative of his evil stuff in 2005. The closer role seemed to agree with him, as Farnsworth cut both his hits and walks allowed while maintaining his strikeout pace of better than one per inning. He held both righties and lefties under a .200 average.
Why not: Was this a contract-year fluke? In his previous six big-league seasons, Farnsworth showed a disturbing propensity to allow ill-timed walks and homers, and acquired a less than stellar clubhouse reputation. The year after his previous best season, in 2001, Farnsworth regressed badly (7.33 ERA in 2002). Finally, given both his success in Atlanta and his roots in the area, it's likely the Braves could retain him if they want to.
Tom Gordon, RHP, 38
2005 numbers: 5-4, 2.57; 80.2 IP, 59 hits, 29 walks, 69 strikeouts; 2 saves/9 opps
Why: Gordon has been a premier closer in the past--he's got 116 career saves, including 46 for the Red Sox in 1998, a campaign that inspired one of Stephen King's less memorable novels. He's pitched at an all-star level setting up Mariano Rivera the last two seasons, showing power and control. His numbers are comparable to the premier non-Wagner closers on the market, but he'll likely come cheaper given his age and the lack of recent gaudy save totals.
Why not: Multi-year deals for closers in their late 30s are always a scary prospect. And while Gordon's ERA dropped in the second half of 2005, so too did his strikeout numbers: he fanned just 25 in 38.2 innings after the all-star break, compared to 44 in 42 first-half innings. His home runs allowed rose as well. Was this age-related decline? Simple fatigue? Just a blip?
Trevor Hoffman, RHP, 38
2005 numbers: 1-6, 2.97; 57.2 IP, 52 hits, 12 walks, 54 strikeouts; 43 saves/46 opps
Why: If we can't have "Enter Sandman," then "Hell's Bells" is a pretty cool replacement. Oh, there's also the 436 career saves, sustained excellent K/BB ratio, and the pure fun of watching hitters twist themselves into pretzels trying to hit that Bugs Bunny change-up. He allowed just 3 homers in his 57.2 innings, though presumably the cavernous dimensions of Petco Park had something to do with that.
Why not: See Gordon, Tom as far as old relievers and multi-year deals. Then consider that he'll look to command probably about as much money--$10 million a year or so--as Wagner himself. As with Billy the Kid, that sounds okay for 2006, but becomes a steadily less appealing prospect going forward.
Bob Howry, RHP, 32
2005 numbers: 7-4, 2.47; 73 IP, 49 hits, 16 walks, 48 strikeouts; 3 saves/5 opps
Why: To some extent, Howry's phenomenally low hit rate in 2005 was surely a product of good fortune. But his low walk rate is legit, and crucial for any pitcher who might call CBP home. Those four home runs in 73 innings look good too. He had a slight reverse platoon split in '05, but neither righties (.198) nor lefties (.180) could do very much against him. Finally, his improvement in '05 apparently came in part from an increase in fastball velocity: he consistently hit 95 on the gun this past season.
Why not: Over his career, Howry's been better in a setup role than closing. He's also had injury problems in the past.
Todd Jones, RHP, 38
2005 numbers: 1-5, 2.10; 73 IP, 61 hits, 14 walks, 62 strikeouts; 40 saves/45 opps
Why: Starting 2005 with his seventh team in five seasons, Jones put up arguably the best year of his career. He allowed fewer home runs (2) in 73 innings for the Marlins than he'd given up in 25.1 innings with the Phils in 2004 (3). Those 4.5 strikeouts for every walk were impressive too.
Why not: Every year, some reliever in the NL East turns in a screaming fluke of a season. In 2004, it was Braden Looper; in 2003, it was the Phils' own Rheal Cormier. Here's Exhibit A from 2005. Besides, he hates Philadelphia.
Braden Looper, RHP, 31
2005 numbers: 4-7. 3.94; 59.1 IP, 65 hits, 22 walks, 27 strikeouts; 28 saves/36 opps
Why: Speaking of fluke relievers... okay, Looper isn't likely to see his 2004 numbers again, but his two previous seasons with the Marlins were pretty decent. He'll be cheap after that disappointing 2005. And he's very familiar with the NL East. Even if he's not closing, that .210 average against right-handed hitters marks him as useful.
Why not: 27 strikeouts, 22 walks is a pretty scary ratio for anyone with late-inning aspirations. And while his innings pitched dropped off dramatically in 2005 (83.1 to 59.1), his home runs allowed jumped from 5 to 7. Again, the question is: fluke or decline? Given that 2004 was his only season with an ERA under 3, it's easy to believe that '04 was much more the aberration.
Jose Mesa, RHP, ???
2005 numbers: 2-8, 4.76--you know what? Forget this. No way. Some scars never heal!
B.J. Ryan, LHP, 30
2005 numbers: 1-4, 2.43; 70.1 IP, 54 hits, 26 walks, 100 strikeouts; 36 saves/41 opps
Why: "Younger Billy Wagner" isn't a bad description of this guy. In terms of pure power, Ryan is reminiscent of both Wagner and his Hall of Fame namesake. Add in the decent walk rate and the fact that over the last two seasons he's allowed a home run only every 20 innings or so, and there really isn't much to dislike.
Why not: Ryan is reportedly looking for a four-year deal in the neighborhood of $9 million per annum. He's certainly an excellent pitcher, but is he worth that much? Conditioning could also be a concern: at 260 pounds, Ryan might end up reminiscent of former Baltimore teammate Sidney Ponson. He was also much less effective on the road (3.86 ERA) than at Camden Yards (1.19).
Bob Wickman, RHP, 37
2005 numbers: 0-4, 2.47; 62 IP, 57 hits, 21 walks, 41 strikeouts; 45 saves/50 opps
Why: Since returning from injury in 2004, Wickman has been the same reliable late-game arm he's always been, converting 58 saves in 64 tries. He doesn't surrender walks and handles righties (.250 average allowed) and lefties (.243) with roughly equal aplomb.
Why not: Wickman has surrendered 13 home runs in 91.2 innings since his return to action. He's 37. He's on the hefty side (6'1, 240 pounds). His strikeout rate was markedly down in 2005. And since he saved those 45 games--thanks again, Jerome Holtzman--he'll no doubt make a lot more scratch than he's really worth.
Other free agents:
Given the unpredictable nature of bullpen performance, this list is as or more likely than the one above to contain the best bullpen performers of 2006. Also remember that teams will non-tender another wave of players next month; a smart GM will take flyers on three or four from this group and that one, audition them in spring, and come up with the next Gary Majewski or Aaron Fultz.
Byung Hyun Kim