The Phillies have been down two roads with Brad Lidge, and although both ended in the World Series it is time to try another route.
Yes, it is only May, but that is more reason the Phils should start figuring out the identity of their 2010 bullpen closer. There is plenty of time for a little trial and error before locating him, but no time for the folly of continuing to chase down a rabbit hole after a rabbit with a bad elbow.
It is a shame, and the greatness of Lidge's 2008 season - 48 for 48 in save opportunities through the postseason - still seems close enough to touch and remains tempting enough to attempt to recapture.
At his best, in his most productive seasons, few performed the closer's role better than Lidge. In one five-year stretch, four with Houston and then the 2008 season with the Phils, Lidge converted 163 of 185 save opportunities. That span, from 27 to 31 years of age, is about as good as it gets. But now, as the injuries and infirmities begin to pile up, that span appears to be over.
Lidge can still be a productive member of the bullpen if he can work the pain from his right arm. He can be a situational reliever, even a seventh-inning or eighth-inning setup man. To count on him to be the everyday closer, however, is not the smart way to proceed. It would be like a hockey team that has to keep changing goalies expecting to advance in the Stanley Cup playoffs. (OK, scratch that analogy.)
A season ago, Lidge did save 31 games, but he also blew 11 save opportunities during the regular season. By the end, bothered by a season-long knee strain and increasing discomfort in his pitching arm, Lidge made just one appearance in the six-game World Series. He allowed three runs in the ninth inning of Game 4, which was tied when he entered, and that turned out to be the pivotal game in the Series.
Lidge had off-season surgery to clean out bone chips and other loose bodies from his elbow area and to do some repair work on the flexor tendon. He suffered through pain and swelling during his slow entry into spring training and received a cortisone shot on March 30.
The Phillies, as is standard, said there was nothing unusual about that, which is also what they would have said if Lidge showed up with a vacuum hose attached to his right shoulder. The rehabilitation process continued and Lidge rejoined the team and made his first appearance two weeks ago.
In all, he has been in four games. His first one was so-so, but he pitched scoreless innings in the other three and got his first save of the year on Sunday against Atlanta. That part was great. What wasn't great was that Lidge was unavailable to pitch the next night in Colorado.
When he threw on Tuesday, there was still pain and stiffness in the elbow, and the Phillies shut him down and sent him home to be examined by the team doctor and get an MRI exam. Again, nothing to worry about, a minor setback that they decided to treat very cautiously, according to the team. The MRI showed inflammation, but did not indicate why it is there. So, they wait.
This isn't the way to go through the season, though. Even though the Phillies are a very good team and even though they clinched their third straight division title last year despite the uncertainty at the closer's spot, they now need to face the hard facts.
You need to have your closer available every day. You need to have a closer who gets into the rhythm of doing the job, or being ready to, every game. That is what Brad Lidge did in 2008. That is what he was unable to do in 2009.
It might be that the next closer is not among the pitchers currently in the bullpen. It might be the Phils will eventually need to identify another somewhere else. And, yes, Lidge is going to be overpaid if he is anything but the closer.
Still, the Phillies don't need another season of waiting and hoping. They need to audition from within the ranks, with Jose Contreras the most likely candidate; or promote from the system, with Scott Mathieson, Sergio Escalona, and Michael Schwimer each meriting a look; or begin to formulate a trade strategy. With Ryan Madson out for two months because of a self-inflicted chairectomy, the need to get moving is urgent, even in mid-May.
All of those scenarios make some sense. Chasing down the rabbit hole after a pitcher who has all but disappeared into the darkness does not.