GOODYEAR, Ariz. - Nearly two thousand miles away, Brad Lidge tested his sore arm for 16 pitches on Tuesday as the Phillies front office watched with more than casual interest. If Lidge isn't a healthy closer this season, the job falls to Ryan Madson, and the bullpen domino chain that leads back through the eighth, seventh, and sixth innings will tumble in the process.
Even before Lidge's bout with biceps tendinitis, it was fair to ask who would fill the flexible setup role that was held by Chad Durbin for three years. The best guess is that, in some combination, the job will fall to Danys Baez, Jose Contreras, and Kyle Kendrick. All that is certain is that it won't be Durbin any longer.
"No, I'll be here," Durbin said Tuesday with a smile, sitting in the spring training clubhouse of the Cleveland Indians. "You can look at the season on paper before it starts, but you really can't put stock in it. You might say, 'This is really going to work out.' Then the reality becomes, how are you going to bridge that gap if there is a gap?"
The Phils aren't at that point quite yet. Lidge might be fine all year, Madson might be perfect in the late setup role, and the three other guys might be consistent as well. Meanwhile, the pitcher who previously bridged the gap will be helping a young team learn to win instead of trying to help a veteran team win it all.
"From the competitive side, it's going to be the same challenge for me when I go out there. I'm going to compete," Durbin said. "My time in Philly was amazing. Everybody who plays there, it's a feeling like in New York or Boston. It makes you heighten your game. I have to make sure that mental side is there for me this season. I'm going to focus every day and focus pitch by pitch."
Looking at the bigger picture with the Indians isn't as pleasant. Cleveland finished fourth in the competitive American League Central Division in 2010, and most forecasts indicate it will fall farther this season, dropping behind the talented, young Kansas City Royals. If it does happen that way - and the Indians' starting pitching looks like a disaster about to happen - Cleveland will win fewer than 70 games for the third straight year.
The Indians weren't Durbin's first choice when he became a free agent after last season, but they turned out to be his only choice. He's happy for the job and the chance, even if he doesn't understand exactly how the process played out for him.
The Phillies offered Durbin a one-year contract that called for a $400,000 cut from the $2.1 million he earned in 2010. He and his agent began a negotiating process to see if there was any wiggle room, but the Phis signed Cliff Lee and took their offer to Durbin from the table, replacing it with a non-guaranteed minor-league contract.
You can't blame Durbin for trying. The free-agent market for relievers was crazy in the offseason. Scott Downs got three years, $15 million from the Angels; Jesse Crain got three years, $13 million from the White Sox; and Matt Guerrier got three years, $12 million from the Dodgers. Those numbers were all topped by the three years, $16.5 million given Joaquin Benoit by the Tigers. And none of those pitchers is a closer. At 33 years old, with three solid seasons of middle-to-late relief to his credit, Durbin didn't expect those numbers, but he didn't expect a pay cut, either.
"I didn't think my year dictated it should have been that way. I'm not saying I needed three years for 12 - that's ridiculous - but we were fishing for whatever we could get," Durbin said.
The troubling reality that emerged was that Durbin wasn't getting offers from anywhere else and there was nothing to make the Phillies come around. January turned into February. Training camps opened and Durbin was in Baton Rouge, La., still waiting for a phone call.
The Phils had left the light on and Durbin decided if he didn't have an offer by March, he would pack and drive to Clearwater to take the minor-league contract and hope for the best.
"It was an interesting thing. I'm not sure what happened from the Phillies' side of it, or what thoughts they had, but I know they were interested until the last day," Durbin said. "Once Cliff signed, though, they said they weren't going to be able to do anything. There are guys in free agency that this happens to every year. I just happened to be one of them this time."
On March 1, as he packed to leave for Clearwater, his agent called. Cleveland, an organization Durbin played for in 2003 and 2004, was offering a one-year guaranteed contract for $800,000. Durbin changed his destination to Arizona.
"Free agency. [Former Phillies teammate] Scott Eyre warned me about it. He said it can be great, but it can be a long winter when you just don't know," Durbin said. "If your wife likes to plan things, it's really the family that it's hardest on. To me, I felt I was going to pitch somewhere, and I just hoped it would be on a guaranteed contract. That's why I came here. It's a good opportunity and it's guaranteed time and money."
Nothing else is really certain in this business disguised as a game. It can turn around in a moment, just as the best plans for bridging a bullpen gap can end up in the ice bath of the trainer's room. If the Phillies' plans turn on them this season, the last bridge-builder will be settled into Cleveland, mentoring young pitchers and wondering once again what comes next.
"No complaints," Durbin said. "I've got a World Series ring and a National League championship ring back home. I've been very fortunate in my career."
And then he adjusted the unfamiliar blue cap and trotted out into the Arizona sunshine to greet the new day.