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Hot Stove Burner #2: Closer

The Phillies need probably a minimum of two pitchers this offseason, one of whom has to be a #2 starter or a closer; depending on which role they fill externally, Brett Myers takes the other position. It's pretty well established that the reliever market is more inviting than that for starters, which Pat Gillick--who should know--has characterized as "dangerous." There isn't a clear #2 rotation guy in free agency or known to be available through trade, though Kyle Lohse and Carlos Silva could wind up getting paid as such and Curt Schilling almost certainly will.

Though I have a lot of doubt whether the Phillies will seriously consider moving Myers back to the rotation in the face of his clear preference to close, all things considered it's pretty clear that this is the way to go. Let's take a look at the team's current and potential options here.

  • Brett Myers. A few months back, I wrote about Myers' then-current performance and potential going forward as a closer. I believed then, and still believe now, that he's above-average in the role, and could be dominant. Myers has the stuff, arm and mindset for 9th-inning work; his fastball is consistently 94-96 in one-inning stints, and his curve is devastating when it's on. He's got the requisite "short memory" to shake off the occasional bad outing (there's a much less polite way to characterize this), and he doesn't quail in high-leverage situations. The only drawbacks are, one, that 200 innings of good Myers is worth more than 70 innings of great Myers, and two, that the $20.5 million he's owed over the next two seasons is a lot more palatable for 400 innings than for 140.
  • Mariano Rivera. The future Hall of Famer is a free agent this winter, and while it's still likely that he'll re-sign with the Yankees--it's almost impossible to envision him in another uniform--the odds that he'll leave shoot up if Joe Torre is dismissed. Rivera's getting on in years--he'll turn 38 next month, and posted an ERA above 3 for the first time since 1995. But Rivera's near-exclusive reliance on the cut fastball means that his arm hasn't endured as much strain as guys who throw more breaking pitches, and his strikeout rate bounced back in a big way from 2006. Finally, from April 28 onwards, his ERA was a more Rivera-like 2.23 in 64.2 innings. Rivera probably will command at least a two-year deal for around $12 million per, a little more money than Myers is owed--but paying him allows the team to move Myers back to the rotation.

  • Francisco Cordero. The next-best option among the free-agent options, Cordero features the big fastball you expect from a closer, and his strikeout rate (12.2 per 9 IP) reflects as much. But he comes with some concerns. Cordero's walk rate was fine in 2007, but his wildness before getting traded to Milwaukee in mid-2006--16 walks in 26.2 innings for the Rangers--is more than a little worrisome. This past season, Cordero was nearly unhittable in Miller Park (1.09 ERA) but sub-Eatonesque everywhere else (6.55). This could well be a fluke, given that in previous years his home/road splits were relatively unremarkable, but it jumps off the stat sheet. At age 33 as of next May, it's also questionable whether he's a good bet for the four-year contract, probably at north of $10 million per, that he's likely to command.

  • Joe Nathan. The Minnesota relief star isn't a free agent, but he's a year away and will be absurdly underpaid in 2008 at $6 million. Would the Twins deal him? Perhaps. Minnesota plays in a division with two loaded teams, the Indians and Tigers, and a third, Chicago, that is in full win-now mode with an aging roster core. By contrast, the Twins are a couple years away from a new stadium, with an octogenarian owner who's a notorious cheapskate, an abundance of cheap young pitching talent, and two star regulars under the team's control for years to come. Minnesota could trade not just Nathan but ace Johan Santana, reap a windfall of young talent, and look to win it all in 2010 or so. The question then becomes whether the Phillies could swing a deal for Nathan. Shane Victorino might be too much for a one-year rental; Michael Bourn is almost certainly too little. The Twins need young infielders and probably a replacement for free agent center fielder Torii Hunter; maybe Bourn plus Brad Harman and an additional prospect could lead to a match.

  • Eric Gagne. Once the consensus best closer in the game, Gagne's star fell as he suffered serious injury and, more recently, struggled badly with the Red Sox after pitching well in a half-season for Texas. His stuff isn't what it was, but he still throws mid-90s with decent secondary pitches. Unfortunately, he's also still represented by Scott Boras, which means he's not coming cheap. Gagne represents high risk and potential high reward, but do you really trust the Phillies medical staff to keep him intact and effective?

  • Field. The free agent market offers a few other palatable relievers, but nobody you'd necessarily want to see charging in from the bullpen to protect a one-run lead in the 9th. Scott Linebrink might get a chance to close for someone, and Kerry Wood has the stuff if not the health record. With names like Armando Benitez, Byung-Hyun Kim, Roberto Hernandez, Mike Timlin and Chris Reitsma--not to mention Antonio Alfonseca and Jose Mesa--there's no shortage of guys who closed once, but never should do so again. Of course the Phillies also have a few potential in-house options, guys with big fastballs like Scott Mathieson, Francisco Rosario, and Joe Bisenius. I wouldn't want any of them starting 2008 with the job, but I also wouldn't want to foreclose the possibility that one of them could seize the job a year down the road--another argument for Rivera or Nathan rather than someone like Cordero, who would command a longer deal.

Anyone else out there I missed?


All things considered, who should be the Phillies' closer next season?

This poll is closed

  • 12%
    Francisco Cordero
    (12 votes)
  • 5%
    Eric Gagne
    (5 votes)
  • 32%
    Brett Myers
    (32 votes)
  • 18%
    Joe Nathan
    (18 votes)
  • 26%
    Mariano Rivera
    (26 votes)
  • 6%
    (6 votes)
99 votes total Vote Now