Tough year to be a closer

The St. Louis Cardinals blew seven save opportunities in April, tied for most in the majors. Ryan Franklin was responsible for four. That cost him his job as the closer.

Franklin was booed at home … criticized the fans who booed him … and finally apologized for criticizing the fans who booed him. It wasn’t pretty.

Then a funny thing happened: The Cardinals’ bullpen began pitching quite well. From Mitchell Boggs to Fernando Salas, from Trever Miller to Eduardo Sanchez, the St. Louis pen found a way to record the 27th out.

Franklin’s most recent blown save came April 17. The Cardinals have one of the best records in baseball since then.

Of course, you can guess what happened next: The Cardinals took a one-run lead into the seventh inning in Atlanta on Sunday, reliever Jason Motte gave it up, and Franklin absorbed the walk-off loss. The Braves were desperate to get the win, because they had blown late leads during the previous two games.

Yes, it’s been that kind of year.

“Seems like it,” Padres closer Heath Bell acknowledged over the weekend. “I don’t know what it was. The first two weeks, maybe, there was a lot of blown saves. The last two weeks, guys have pretty much nailed it down. I don’t think there’s as many anymore.”

Yet statistically, the closers and setup men of our national pastime are on pace for one of their worst collective years in recent memory. Consider:

• Entering Sunday’s games, major-league relievers had blown 34.3 percent of their save opportunities — the second-highest rate in a season since 2001.

• Half the teams in baseball (15 of 30) blew four or more save opportunities last month. By that measure, it was the worst April for big-league bullpens since 2002.

• The most arduous save opportunities may be yet to come. Bell believes May is the most difficult month for closers, explaining, “Off the bat, pitchers are ahead of hitters. In May, maybe pitchers eased off or didn’t have that edge. Oops, they give up a couple runs, and it’s back to the drawing board.”

By contrast, Padres manager Bud Black believes the physical and mental strain of closing makes September the most difficult month. Either way, it’s not easy for closers to improve as the season progresses.

Every team in baseball has blown at least one save opportunity. And the only bullpen to blow just one April chance was that of the Philadelphia Phillies — which is stunning, since the Phillies’ closer (Brad Lidge) and fill-in closer (Jose Contreras) are both on the disabled list.

Health, in fact, is one explanation for bullpen struggles across the big leagues. Closers Neftali Feliz (Texas), Andrew Bailey (Oakland) and David Aardsma (Seattle) are on the disabled list. Brian Wilson (San Francisco) and Joe Nathan (Minnesota) likely still are feeling the effects of past injuries. As a result, less experienced relievers have been thrust into setup and closing roles.

That’s in addition to the teams — the Braves (Craig Kimbrel), Pirates (Joel Hanrahan), Angels (Jordan Walden), Brewers (John Axford), and Nationals (Drew Storen) — that slotted unproven closers into the ninth inning during spring training or early in the regular season.

Not every team has a true No. 1 starter. But it’s possible that even fewer have a true closer. The Phillies, for example, have multiple ace starters and no proven closer, at least for the moment.

“The quality of guys with closing jobs is down,” one National League scout said. “Declining pitchers are still doing it, and new guys on bad clubs are getting the opportunity.”

“The biggest thing with the young closers is, Are you going to be able to do it for a full year?” said Bell, who estimated that there are five or six legitimate closers in the National League. “Can you do it on a consistent basis — as in, after you blow a game, can you come back the next day? Can you do it this year and next? Only time will really tell.”

And while it’s impossible to have a good bullpen without an effective closer, an effective closer alone doesn’t make for a good bullpen. Consider the Tigers and Red Sox. Each team has a closer who is 5 for 5 in save chances: Jose Valverde in Detroit, Jonathan Papelbon in Boston. But both clubs had bullpen ERAs above 5.00 in April.

For now, managers and general managers can remind themselves that it’s relatively early in the season. But over the next several weeks — probably around the first of June — trade discussions will pick up, as GMs look longingly at closers and setup men who wear the most coveted label in baseball: Done It Before.

And if they restrict their search to relievers who (a) have closing experience in a pennant race, (b) are in the final guaranteed year of their contracts, and (c) pitch for teams that have losing records, two names likely will stand out above all the others: the Mets’ Francisco Rodriguez and the Padres’ Bell.

Rodriguez, 29, has a games-finished clause that could guarantee his contract for 2012, thus complicating his trade value. With Bell, 33, there is no such issue. He is earning $7.5 million as the Padres’ highest-paid player this year, after which he will be eligible for free agency.

Asked if he must prepare for the inevitable trade rumors, Bell said, “I don’t know. I’ve never been in that situation. Honestly, for me, I’m so zoned in, helping our guys out. Right now, I’m a Padre. I’m going to do everything I can to stay here and get this team a win every single day. If one day, they say, ‘You’re not a San Diego Padre,’ then I’ll do that for that team.

"Honestly, I’m really simple-minded. I have more worries with my kids’ homework. I have so much reading I have to do for their homework, that any newspapers or rumors, honestly, I have no time for.”

If you’re curious, Bell is 6 for 6 in save opportunities this season with a 0.82 ERA. In other words, he sounds great to any fan of a team whose bullpen is struggling.

And that covers about half the fans in baseball right now.

Every Monday morning this season, we examine a pressing baseball issue in our baseball column Behind the Seams.