The St. Louis Cardinals entered the season a) looking to contend in the NL Central and b) with Ryan Franklin as their closer. This wasn't a controversial pairing. Franklin wasn't the ideal closer, but he had done just fine for the Cardinals over the previous two seasons. Franklin made 21 appearances in 2011, and he gave up runs in 14 of them. A .333 average is good for a hitter, not so much for a pitcher, and he was demoted from closer to middle reliever to mop-up man, and finally he was released on Wednesday.
There are pitchers like Huston Street who are drafted as a reliever, come up as a reliever, and stay a reliever, all according to plan. Then there are pitchers like Franklin who have somewhat bizarre career paths. Franklin:
- was drafted in the 23rd round of the 1992 draft, just one pick after Bobby Estalella
- didn't pitch a full season in the majors until he was 28
- had a 121 ERA+ as a starter for the 2003 Seattle Mariners ... despite leading the league in home runs allowed ... while pitching half of his games in Safeco Field
- was let go by the Mariners after losing 31 games over a two-year span with an 88 ERA+
- converted to relief after signing with the Phillies, then he went to the Cardinals, where he had by far his best years in the majors
- did just fine as a closer for the Cardinals until this season
- was one of three closers (multiple years with more than 20 saves) in the last decade with a K/9 under 6.00 (Braden Looper and Danny Graves were the others)
This reads like a career obituary, which might be premature. But it's hard to imagine a contender thinking they could fix what Dave Duncan couldn't, just as it's hard to imagine a non-contender even bothering to try. Maybe someone takes a chance on Franklin, but it's just as easy to imagine that this is the end for him.
Of all the unlikely pitchers to slide into a closer's role, a 35-year-old journeyman without a strikeout pitch has to be near the top of a list, yet Franklin made it work for far longer than anyone could have predicted. It was a good run while it lasted.