The one-time Los Angeles Dodgers closer-of-the-future became part of the past Tuesday when two-time All Star reliever Jonathan Broxton signed a reported $4 million deal with the Kansas City Royals. The signing brings to an end a seven year Dodgers career that saw him start off like a rocket only to finish as a satellite crashing back to earth.
Broxton, 27, was drafted by the Dodgers in 2002 and made his Major League debut in July of 2005. He quickly became a very effective “set-up” reliever for then-closer Takashi Saito. In his first three seasons, Broxton struck out 218 in 172 innings. Then in the middle of the 2008 season, Saito suffered an injury and Broxton thrived as the new closer. He came through with seven saves in his first seven opportunities and played a huge role in the Dodgers run to the NL West title by surrendering only a single earned run over his last fourteen appearances of the season. The 14 saves he ended up with made it easy for the Dodgers to let the 38-year old Saito walk as a free agent after the Dodgers were eliminated from the NLCS.
Broxton fulfilled his 2008 promise by saving 36 games and making the All-Star team in 2009. He didn’t miss a beat in 2010; at least for the first half of the season. Broxton had 19 saves and a 1.93 ERA by mid-July and was tabbed an All-Star for the second straight year. Then, something went awry.
In his first post-All Star break appearance versus the Cardinals, Broxton gave up four hits and two runs in 1.1 innings and turned a 4-3 Dodgers lead into a 5-4 loss. He followed that up with mostly disappointing appearances and blowing leads soon became his modus operandi. After Broxton had a four run “meltdown” against the Phillies in early August, manager Joe Torre publicly stated Hong Chih-Kuo was the new closer and Broxton would be relegated to “non-save” situations. The idea was a break from the pressure could solve all that ailed Broxton. Sadly, Torre’s plan for a mental recovery didn’t work. Broxton mustered just three saves the entire second half of the season and finished with a disappointing 4.04 ERA.
In spite of those 2010 failings, new Dodgers manager Don Mattingly opened 2011 by firmly reminding everyone Broxton was going to be the closer, case closed. But Broxton never really returned to All-Star form. He was 1-2 with a 5.68 ERA before going down with an elbow injury in early May.
Broxton’s failure to return in 2011 allowed rookie reliever Javy Guerra to blossom much as Broxton did when Saito went down. Guerra ended up saving 21 games in 23 opportunities. Guerrra’s performance, along with relievers Kenley Jansen(2-1, 2.85 ERA, 96K in 53 innings) and Matt Guerrier, gave the Dodgers a plethora of right handed bullpen help.
No one is quite sure how or why Broxton lost his ability to to hit 99MPH on the radar gun but some have offered theories. The ugly steroid issue plagued the Dodgers in 2009 when Manny Ramirez was suspended. The 2010 statistical drop-offs by both Broxton and catcher Russell Martin had many wondering if the two didn’t have the same doctor as Ramirez. Martin later blamed his declining performance on lack of effort rather than lack of steroids. Broxton was able to explain his fall off via the injury route. Reportedly, Broxton was bothered by a sore toe beginning late in the 2009 season that made it difficult for him to achieve a complete follow through on his pitches. Another theory was, as Torre thought, it was all in Broxton’s head. “Ground zero” for his decline seemed to coincide with a June 2010 relief appearance versus the Yankees. Broxton was called into protect a 6-2 lead but gave up four runs in the top of the ninth and the Dodgers went on to lose the game. That game seemed to be the starting point of the spiral he eventually went into.
Given all the turmoil surrounding the Dodgers, it is no wonder they simply let Broxton go without even a whimper of an offer. He wrapped up a contract that paid him $11 million the last two seasons yet certainly didn’t earn much of it the previous year and a half. On paper, at least, it seems Broxton is another one of those relievers that couldn’t sustain all that it takes to be an elite closer over a long period of time. And maybe Kansas City is a good place for him to re-start a stalled career. The Royals already have a decent closer in Joakim Soria (28 saves in 2011) so maybe entering the 2012 season in the same set-up role that started his career will be Broxton’s new beginning.
For Dodgers fans, Broxton’s legacy may be more of a comet than a true star; comets burn brighter than stars but flame out quicker.