Sunday, June 18, 2006

Stick with Wick?

You remember that other shoe? The one you've been waiting to see drop every time Bob Wickman takes the mound?
Well, it might finally be getting ready to do a sole-plant.
Sure, it's just a mild slump right now, but it's hard to not notice the fact that since last Saturday's blown save in Chicago, followed by his postgame staredown with Paul Byrd, Wickman has not been the same pitcher.
He dodged bullets last Sunday to get the save in a 10-8 nailbiter that shouldn't have been. He waited a week, then followed it up with his worst outing in quite some time this Saturday in Milwaukee. He walked a pair and gave up two hits, including the game winner to Geoff Jenkins in a 3-2 loss.
It will be very interesting to see if the flameout that occurred just over a week ago is a turning point for Wickman. He has been pitching on borrowed time for almost two seasons. After missing half of 2002, all of 2003 and half of 2004 recovering from Tommy John ligament transplant surgery on his pitching elbow, he made a strong return in the second half of '04, followed by a career-high 45 saves in 2005.
After converting his first eight saves this year, the blown save in Chicago was his first in over 10 months. But the recent success wasn't the product of finding the fountain of youth. Wickman relied on guts and guile to get most of his 45 saves last year. His devastating sinker abandoned him long ago, forcing him to rely on sliders and well-placed fastballs to get hitters out.
Wickman's resurgence in the past few years can probably be attributed to personal relief more than anything. He probably received a lift from the fact that he was pitching pain-free for the first time in years. He took the mound grateful for every appearance last season.
This year, as the confrontation with Byrd indicates, the burdensome side of baseball has gotten back to Wickman. At this stage of his career, with a reconstructed elbow that has to last him the rest of his life, it's doubtful Wickman has the desire to fight through excessive adversity to keep pitching at a high level.
Wickman has been a good soldier for the Indians for (it's hard to believe) six seasons. But all the dominoes are lining up for Wickman to finish his Indians career as a malcontent. He has at least one known clubhouse antagonist, and he's watching possibly his last major league season end on team in a rapid tailspin.
He's pitching once every 10 days to two weeks because that's all the save opportunities his teammates can manage to hand him. Now he's blowing even those chances.
In the end, it might be best to unload Wickman. He's quite obviously not a part of the Indians' future plans. He wouldn't even be a part of their present had GM Mark Shapiro orchestrated a more successful offseason.
The White Sox, Tigers, Yankees and Red Sox are all looking for bullpen help. Wickman wouldn't yield a stud prospect in return, but his departure might allow the Indians to begin a much-needed bullpen shuffle.
A team like the Indians doesn't need a fulltime closer, a pitcher whose sole job it is to come in for the ninth inning with a lead of three runs or less. The Dennis Eckersley one-inning closer model works great for winning teams who can hand that pitcher many leads to protect.
The Indians, Royals and Devil Rays? They don't win enough to need a pitcher expressly for that role, a role that Wickman is suited for almost exclusively.
Trading Wickman would let Fausto Carmona, Jeremy Guthrie and Rafael Betancourt close by committee. Scary notion? maybe, but at least that trio would get more work, and on the rare occasion a save situation comes up, somebody would get a chance to prove themselves in advance of the (hopeful) day the Indians can, once again, make use of a fulltime closer.
The young, faltering Indians and aging, wilting Wickman are on divergent paths. Hopefully, the Indians will realize that soon and let their battle-scarred veteran closer move on and finish his career in a better situation.

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