The Philadelphia Phillies continue to hover near the .500 mark this season, but are a win-streak away from making a run at first place in the National League East.
While no one knows whether the Phillies will become buyers or sellers at the trade deadline, or even stand pat, the one thing that seems certain is that trade rumors will soon begin swirling regardless of the team’s win-loss record.
Cliff Lee’s name is likely to come up, but if he continues to pitch like one of the best pitchers in the National League—already tying his win total from last season—the Phillies could decide that even with his high salary it makes far more sense to keep Lee rather than trade him.
Trading Ryan Howard should be the Phillies top priority, according to David Murphy on Philly.com. But with more than $100 million owed to him from 2013 to 2017, and with a nagging knee injury, it seems even more unlikely that a team would make an offer for Howard.
Chase Utley and Michael Young are currently set to become free agents after this season—meaning the Phillies would not see any long-term cost savings by trading them. Cole Hamels signed a $144 million extension last season—meaning the Phillies likely have no intentions of trading him.
But what about Jonathan Papelbon?
At first glance, it’s difficult to see a team willing to potentially pay $39 million over the next three years, plus what he is still owed this season, to a closer. However, Papelbon has continued to pitch like one of the best closers in baseball this season.
Papelbon has now struck out 17 batters while walking just three in 20.2 innings and has given up three earned runs. He also currently has 11 saves, which ranks seventh in the NL, and a 1.31 ERA.
Yeah, I could see myself in Boston, he told WEEI.com. I could see myself pitching in New York. You know me. I’ve always been the kind of guy who…I don’t really just settle, or accept things. Whatever happens in my future is going to happen. I’m not blind to that fact.
The Red Sox have spent approximately $22.79 million in deals involving potential closers to replace Papelbon since he signed with the Phillies, as Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe wrote.
For the Phillies, Papelbon now has 49 saves in less than two full seasons and one All-Star appearance.
But $39 million, which includes a yearly salary of $13 million now, is a high price to pay any closer. $13 million a year for a player who, at most, will have three to four outings per week, is a steep price.
Considering the Phillies must win with more consistency for Papelbon to have save opportunities in the first place, saving money at the closer position and working on improving the team’s lineup could make more sense.
If the Phillies are looking to move a contract that will save them money in future seasons, Papelbon’s could be one they look to deal. The hard part would be finding a team willing to take on such a contract.
As Bradford’s article noted, Papelbon can block trades to eight teams and the Red Sox may be one of those teams. This means that the Red Sox, or any team on his no-trade list, could have to pay more for him to waive his no-trade clause. Although this could make a trade more difficult, it doesn’t mean that it cannot take place.
Jim Salisbury on CSNPhilly.com wrote in early May that the Detroit Tigers could be a team interested in Papelbon. But with Jose Valverde back and Bruce Rondon still having plenty of time to improve, would the Tigers be interested in taking on Papelbon’s contract for possibly three more years?
Furthermore, with Mike Adams battling injuries and inconsistency plaguing the rest of the bullpen, the Phillies could see a huge drop-off at the closer position. But if saving money in the ninth inning can lead to improved production in a lineup for a full nine-inning game, 162 times a season, the drop-off in talent can be made up in other areas.
It will likely take a team with a high payroll to be willing to make an offer for Papelbon, and even then the Phillies may have to throw in additional cash to complete any deal. But if the Phillies continue to hover near the .500 mark, trading a high-priced closer could become their best option, if at all possible.
Papelbon has been outstanding for the Phillies, but the team can only fully utilize his talents if their offense is able to put him in a save situation. If those instances become rare, paying $13 million for another few years to a pitcher who only appears a few times each week may become a situation that is too pricey.
It won’t be easy, but if the Phillies can move Papelbon’s contract, it could become the best long-term cost saving option.
*All statistics courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.