$62 million, $80 million, and $86 million. No folks, those aren’t the prizes for winning the Powerball this month. Those are the money amounts that the top 3 free agent closers on the market, Mark Melancon (Giants), Kenley Jansen (Dodgers), and Aroldis Chapman (Yankees), will be making off of their newly signed contracts with their respective teams. Closing Major League Baseball games has become somewhat of an art form. Some guys can do it, and some guys can’t. These three have been a few of the most consistent 9th inning specialists in the league over the past few seasons, and now their wallets can prove it.
What exactly is it, though, that makes a certain player more capable of being a closer than another player? Is it a mindset? Is it a certain skill set? Whatever it may be, the position has revolutionized the game over the years, and without someone who can consistently lock down the final 3 outs of a game, teams don’t have much success. Go ahead and check the stats in the 9th inning for the usually even-year-dominant San Francisco Giants from a season ago… Done throwing up? Good. Then let’s move on.
The Phillies head into the 2017 season with a rather large question mark in regards to who will be the guy that comes through those bullpen doors in the 9th inning. There’s no Aroldis Chapman, Mariano Rivera, or Trevor Hoffman walking through those doors for the Phils this upcoming season. Instead, they will head into the season with 4 guys who could make an argument that the job should be theirs. Let’s take a look at those candidates.
2016: 4-4, 2.58 ERA, 102 SO, 80.1 IP, 2 SAVES
Hector Neris was the best, most consistent arm out of the Phillies bullpen in 2016. That might not be saying a whole lot based on how dreadful most of the pen was, but he still enjoyed a breakout season for the Phils. Neris showed that he has the stuff to be dominant at times, and transitioning from the 8th to the 9th inning in 2017 doesn’t seem like it would be a very hard transition for the 27-year-old righty. He had a small cup of coffee in the role late in September after our next guy’s hiccups became a little much, so it would be interesting to see if Pete Mackanin and company would be willing to keep him there heading into 2017. He’s got the potential to be one of the best relievers in the game, between his shutdown stuff and his stats in 2016, so maybe he gets a shot.
2016: 3-5, 4.85 ERA, 47 SO, 68.2 IP, 37 SAVES
Jeanmar Gomez looked like a revelation for the Phillies during most of the 2016 season. The 28-year-old righty seems like he’s been around forever for whatever reason, but the Phillies are just his 3rd team after spending 2010-2012 with the Indians and 2013-2014 with the Pirates. I admittedly thought Gomez was much older than he is, but at 28, he could be in the prime of his career. After earning the Phillies closer role in mid-to-late April, following the Phillies going into the season with no real set closer, Gomez settled into the closer’s role beautifully once he was handed the reigns. From April to August, Gomez combined to throw 60.2 innings to an ERA right around 3.06 and he earned 34 of his 37 saves for the year. Once the calendar turned to September, though, Gomez seemed to come back to reality, as his ERA sat at 19.13 during September and the few games in October for the Phils, where he appeared in 12 games and a total of 8 innings. He gave up 17 earned runs and 21 hits during those 8 appearances, whereas through the first 5 whole months of the season he allowed just 20 earned runs and surrendered 57 hits. So basically, he gave up about 4 runs and a little over 11 hits PER MONTH through the first 5 months of the year. In just the 8 games he pitched after that, he more than quadrupled the runs average and almost doubled the hits average. Something went wrong for Jeanmar late in the year, and whether that might be fatigue or something different we didn’t know about, it’ll be up to Mackanin and his staff to decide whether they will look into more of the first 5 months Gomez of 2016 or the last month Gomez of 2016 heading into this season.
2016: 3-1, 2.81 ERA, 52 SO, 48 IP, 1 SAVE
Joaquin Benoit has been around the block more times than most. Heading into the season as a 39-year-old reliever, the Phillies will become the 7th team that Benoit will appear for in his career that dates all the way back to 2001 with the Texas Rangers as a young 23-year-old starter. Benoit has been one of the most consistent late-game righties in the league throughout most of his career. Most of the time, he has been the shutdown set-up man for his respective club, but with his 51 career saves, including 24 with the Detroit Tigers in 2013 and 11 with the San Diego Padres in 2014, Benoit has the most closing experience of all the players in the Phillies’ pen. Last season’s stats look like another solid year from the veteran, but before Benoit was traded to Toronto in July from Seattle, he wasn’t having his best season ever for the M’s. In 26 games out of the Mariners’ bullpen, he pitched to a 5.18 ERA in 24.1 IP. Once he was sent to the Blue Jays, Benoit looked more like his old self, if not better. He gave up just one, yes ONE, run in 23.2 IP for the playoff bound Jays, putting his ERA at 0.38 in his 25 appearances. The Phillies signed the journeyman to a 1-year deal at the beginning of this December, and they’re hoping to get something closer to the Blue Jays Benoit than the Mariners Benoit. Will they be looking for these stats from him in the 9th inning? Possibly, as Mackanin and his guys will see his experience in the 9th as a major plus.
2016: 1-3, 3.83 ERA, 40 SO, 40 IP, 0 SAVES
I want to give a quick shout out to one of our Twitter followers, @ChadMichaelis, for throwing this name into the hat of potential closers for the Phils, because quite frankly I forgot all about him. Ramos was one of the very few bright spots out of the Phils’ bullpen in 2016, throwing up a quietly solid campaign as a 23-year-old rookie who didn’t even make the club out of Spring Training and didn’t appear for the big club until June. Ramos progressively moved up the depth chart throughout the season and ended up pitching some big late innings for the Phils, usually as a set-up man in the 7th or 8th inning. With his 9.0 SO9 (Strikeouts per 9 innings), he’s got the strikeout stuff that is usually a big part of being a closer. He’s probably at least 4th in line behind these first 3 in terms of getting the job out of Spring Training, but don’t be surprised if we see Ramos getting an opportunity to close games for the Phillies sometime in the near future.
So, who will it be? I ran a poll on our Twitter page, @phlphilnation, earlier in the week to see who our followers thought should be the 9th inning guy heading into 2017, and in a race that was much closer than I anticipated, 36% of our followers think Jeanmar Gomez should get another crack at the job, where 30% voted for Hector Neris, 30% voted for Joaquin Benoit, and the remaining 4% picked the field other than these 3, including Ramos and possibly another veteran newcomer, Pat Neshek. I thought the majority of people would have voted for my personal pick, Neris. It goes to show that more of the fans would rather have the more experienced Gomez in that role. I don’t disagree with the choice, though. If we can get the Jeanmar of the first 5 months of 2016 for all of 2017, I’m all for it. Based on potential of being that guy that could eventually be mentioned amongst the Chapmans, Melancons, and Jansens of the world, Neris might be that guy. It will be interesting to see what the guys in the dugout and the front office will do to decide who wins the job.
PS, Happy Rogue One release day! May the force be with the 2017 Phillies and their bullpen.
Photo: Bryan Green (via: Flickr)