Philadelphia Phillies: Jonathan Papelbon Signing a Mistake on Many Levels

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Philadelphia Phillies: Jonathan Papelbon Signing a Mistake on Many Levels
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
In fairness, Papelbon pitched well in 2012. Not $11 million worth, though.

Phillies fans breathlessly await this offseason's big-name acquisition.

After the 2009 season, the Phillies traded for Roy Halladay, committing $60 million to him, per MLB.com.

After the 2010 season, recognizing how foolish they had been in trading Cliff Lee away in the first place, the Phillies brought Lee back for $120 million, per sbnation.com.

Those moves made sense and, for the most part, Halladay and Lee have delivered on their contracts.

Unfortunately, as wise as the Halladay and Lee acquisitions were, the Phillies lost the plot during the 2011 offseason.

The signing of Jonathan Papelbon for $50 million (per ESPN.com) was only marginally defensible when it happened. Now, with three years left on the deal, that decision has turned out to be a serious error in judgment.

Mind you, this is in no way an indictment of Papelbon or his performance. 

Unlike many of the players to whom the Phillies paid eight-figure salaries in 2012, Papelbon did more or less what the Phillies expected him to do.

Papelbon saved 38 games. His earned run average of 2.44 was sterling, as was his 1.06 WHIP. Striking out 92 batters in 70 games was also in line with what the Phillies expected to get from Papelbon when they gave him all that money.

And when you look around the National League, it is hard to identify many closers you would rather have than Papelbon.

Rob Carr/Getty Images
As long as Manuel will only use Papelbon in the ninth inning, the Phillies will not get full value out of the expensive closer.

Craig Kimbrel is one.

Kimbrel shared the league lead in saves, posted absurdly low numbers for earned run average (1.01) and WHIP (.654) and he is only 24 years of age.

 

Aroldis Chapman, also 24, saved 38 games, but with much better peripheral statistics than Papelbon (1.51 earned run average, .809 WHIP, 122 strikeouts in 71.2 innings pitched).

But Chapman is only a year removed from his predominantly lost 2011 season, when the Reds could not figure out what to do with him and he struggled with injury.

After Kimbrel and Chapman, Papelbon compares favorably with the premier closers in the rest of the National League.

Jason Motte saved 42 games, but 2012 marked the first time in his career that he had ever saved more than nine games, and he is 30 years old. 

Beyond Motte, you see a number of journeymen and league-average types: Joel Hanrahan, John Axford, J.J. Putz, et al.

Given Papelbon's track record and his solid production in 2012, the Phillies would likely prefer him to any of those closers.

So why is the Papelbon signing such a mistake?

If the San Francisco Giants proved anything in their recent World Series run, it is that Billy Beane's famous theory that just about anyone can close games is true.

When the Giants won the 2010 World Series, Brian Wilson made a name for himself as a quirky, lights-out closer with a funky beard. 

This season, however, Wilson pitched in two games before needing reconstructive elbow surgery. The Giants' regular-season saves leader was Santiago Casilla.

But Sergio Romo saved all four games in the 2012 World Series. 

 

Beyond that, the eight figures that Papelbon commanded meant that the Phillies entered 2012 with plans to have inexpensive pitchers bridge games from the pricey starting staff to him.

Jose Contreras, Antonio Bastardo, David Herndon and Michael Stutes were all projected to pitch in the seventh and eighth innings of close games.

Of that group, all but Bastardo got hurt, and Bastardo's performance was so poor that by the end of the season he was primarily used in low-leverage situations.

Further, because manager Charlie Manuel was exceptionally loath to use Papelbon for more than one inning, the Phillies were eventually compelled to entrust late inning leads to the likes of B.J. Rosenberg, Jeremy Horst and Joe Savery, with predictable results.

At this point, the Phillies are probably stuck with Papelbon, at least in 2013.

His trade value with $39 million more due over the next three seasons is not going to be great. As such, the Phillies are best served hoping that he will churn out another healthy season of 30-plus saves.

If they had it to do over again, though, the Phillies would probably have Papelbon make his generational money somewhere else.

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