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Friday, August 28, 2009

When Does a Senior Manager Elevate a Problem?

This is a problem that faces most organizations. The people in the trenches try to solve problems together, don't want to go behind others' backs and talk to colleagues' bosses when a colleague isn't getting the job done or don't want to go to their own boss when a teammate is not getting the job done. The explanations are simple enough -- they don't want to be viewed as political or don't want to jeopardize the relationship with that person, with whom they'll have to work repeatedly. So, they suffer in silence, hope that things will get better, and the problem in all likelihood worsens.

The reason? By not elevating the problem, those in the trenches leave the senior people with fewer options simply because of the passage of time. Then, a crisis happens, and while we all know that a crisis is part danger and part opportunity, a solution in this case has to happen in a hurry. As I tell the folks with whom I work the most closely, emergency rooms are full of people who were in a hurry or didn't plan.

And all this brings me to the Philadelphia Phillies. Their closer, Brad Lidge, has a Mendoza-like problem, in that his ERA is about 7.00, which is just plum awful (although ERA for a reliever is an overrated stat, as are many stats for relievers). Anyway, he's blown about 30% of his saves, and for the Phillies to go deep into the post-season, they need him to pitch better. That, of course, is a simple solution.

The problem is that Lidge hasn't shown much improvement. Despite his woeful inconsistency (and when, really, isn't inconsistency woeful?), his manager, Charlie Manuel, continues to insist that Lidge is his closer. Manuel probably says this for several reasons, among them a) that he has no other possible closer (set-up man Ryan Madson didn't fare well when handed the role while Lidge was on the disabled list earlier in the year) and b) he believes he needs to keep saying so to keep Lidge's (probably fragile) spirits up. What we don't know, though, is what general manager Ruben Amaro and Manuel have been talking about behind closed doors. If we are to assume that Manuel believes what he says, then he's guilty of not elevating the problem.

Sports is a meritocracy. Lidge won't get his opponents' bats to drop or miss because he was "Lights Out" Lidge last season. Because that's the case, Manuel should be in Amaro's ear saying that he doubts that Lidge can do the job this season because the numbers don't lie. Amaro, a Stanford graduate, is bright enough to draw that conclusion on his own. But now the passage of time leaves him with few options.

He could have traded for another closer before the trade deadline on July 31. As I had blogged earlier, the Phillies had scouted George Sherrill of the Orioles (now on the Dodgers) and Chad Qualls of the Diamondbacks. Presumably, they could have acquired either to serve as a back-up closer or the main closer for the remainder of the season, and then give Lidge every chance to win the job back in the spring (after all, he has 2 years and $24 million remaining on his contract after this season). But it didn't seem that the Phillies had a sense of urgency about this problem in July, and the trade deadline passed.

The next deadline is August 31, and the dealing is more complicated because the Phillies would have to do a waiver deal. The question, though, is whether every team who has a chance to contend with the Phillies would block their attempt to claim a closer off waivers. My guess is that someone might, but not if the closer has enough remaining on his contract to make claiming that closer too big a risk. Recent reports in the Philadelphia papers have quoted Amaro as saying that the Phillies weren't going to be active before August 31. That said, watch, and the Phillies actually might end up with a guy like Qualls, but who knows?

Let's assume that Monday passes, and the Phillies don't bolster their bullpen (or, for that matter, their bench, where they could use another lefty bat as Matt Stairs has been 0 for the summer). Then, they're hoping that Brett Myers, who closed at the end of 2007 and did very well, finishes his rehab stints in style, joins the bullpen, and provides a much-needed lift. Myers, though, is by no means a sure thing. He's flighty, inconsistent, and immature. Of course, he thrives on the rock star-like atmosphere that surrounds a closer, he did great in 2007 and came up huge in 2008 when he accepted a demotion to the minors and came back and, for the most part, was lights out. Relying on Myers is not necessarily like trying to draw to an inside straight, but it's by no means like betting on Usain Bolt to win a 100-meter dash next week, either.

Time will tell whether Ruben Amaro and Charlie Manuel elevated the closer crisis and made it the type of priority that gets addressed and enables you to win a championship. By not making this issue a priority earlier, the Phillies are taking a bigger than necessary chance in their quest to repeat as world champions. Of course, we don't know what's been discussed and what's been said, but anyone who says that he's confident that Lidge can close much better than he has all season is on some type of attitude-enhancing substance. And suggests, of course, that he might be saying it because he wants to believe it and knows that no more help is on the way.


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