Papelbon could make one of three very good teams —Boston, Detroit or St. Louis— even better.
Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe reported in a recent column that the Philadelphia Phillies believed that the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals all had interest in their closer, Jonathan Papelbon. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has also recently stated his lack of interest in trading any of his most valuable assets and an unwillingness to break up the core of his team and start over.
In the case of Papelbon, he mentioned that his team doesn't have a replacement ready to step in for one of the best closer's in the game. And there is no one "on the market", according to Amaro —I'm assuming he's referring to external options in the upcoming offseason.
Amaro's job, however, is to make sure that his team is competitive year in and year out. In order to do so, he must weigh his options and not mortgage the future to try and win now when his roster is not good enough to do so.
While trading Papelbon doesn't fit Amaro's philosophy not to "do five-year plans" —which actually makes sense now if he thinks he'll be out of a job if the 2013 or 2014 team isn't competitive— the organization may need to decide as a whole on the club's direction. If that direction is to get younger and improve the farm system, trading their 32 year-old closer might be a start.
Here's what it might take for the three aforementioned teams to acquire Papelbon.
Unless they're trading for Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman, the Phillies will end up with a downgrade at the closer's position if they trade Papelbon.
But here's a potential deal where Amaro and the Phillies end up with a major league reliever, Junichi Tazawa (pictured), who has the potential to be a solid closer and two very good prospects that could be in the majors soon.
Just because the Boston Red Sox might want an upgrade in the ninth inning doesn't mean they don't have talent in their bullpen. But closer Andrew Bailey, who blew his second save in his last four opportunities on Tuesday, is not as reliable as he was as the A's closer a couple years back. Papelbon would be a clear upgrade.
Bringing back Papelbon would give them a shutdown closer and allow Bailey to work as a setup man along with Koji Uehara (2.17 ERA, 29 IP, 19 H, 7 BB, 41 K) and Andrew Miller (2.77 ERA, 26 IP, 14 BB, 43 K) to give the Sox one of the most effective groups of late-inning relievers in the game.
The 27-year-old Tazawa has played an integral role in the Sox 'pen with a 2.51 ERA, 11 holds and a stellar walk-to-strikeout ratio (32.1 IP, 3 BB, 38 K).
He's untested as a closer, although he was named the team's closer for a short stint last month while Bailey and Joel Hanrahan were out. Despite not getting a save opportunity, the Sox clearly believed enough in him to give him the job.
Along with Tazawa, the Sox could send Double-A starter Anthony Ranaudo (2.15 ERA, 67 IP, 41 H, 21 BB, 76 K), who has bounced back after a terrible 2012 season, and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (.886 OPS in 28 Triple-A games), who would likely become their starting center fielder with Ben Revere moving to left field and Domonic Brown to right field.
Too much for Papelbon? Maybe. But that's the minimum the Phillies will be asking for in return for one of the best closers in baseball with two more years left on his contract and a third year if his option vests. It's a clear win-now move for the Sox, which the Phillies should try and take advantage..
No World Series contender has a bigger need in the closer's spot than the Detroit Tigers. They were adamant during the offseason that rookie Bruce Rondon would be able to handle the gig. But he struggled in the spring and ended up in Triple-A to start the season.
A closer-by-committee lasted a few weeks before they went back to their 2012 closer, Jose Valverde, who had been re-signed to a minor league deal in early April. While the 35-year-old started strong, he's blown three of his last six chances and continues to look like a good prospect when it comes to hitting compared to when he was in his prime.
Adding Papelbon could make the Tigers a clear favorite to return to the World Series. Their farm system, however, is very thin and giving up top prospect Nick Castellanos is a very unlikely option to acquire a closer, even one with Papelbon's talent.
Like the Red Sox, the Tigers can offer a talented reliever (Rondon) who could potentially take over for Papelbon and a young outfielder with upside in Avisail Garcia (pictured).
They don't have the upper-level pitching prospects that the Sox do, however, so the third player would have to be a lower-level minor leaguer and a fourth prospect might have to be added to the deal.
Jake Thompson, a second-round pick in 2012, might be the best pitching prospect in the organization, although he's just getting his feet wet in Low-A ball. If there's another pitcher the Phillies prefer with a higher upside, you could substitute that pitcher with Thompson.
The 22-year-old Rondon may not be ready to close for a World Series contender, but the Phillies could ease him into the role in the second half of this season with an eye on him being the man in 2014.
He's been impressive in Triple-A, posting a 1.01 ERA with 12 hits and 12 walks allowed in 26.2 innings. Armed with a fastball that has reportedly reached 102 miles per hour, Rondon has struck out 38 and saved 14 games in 27 appearances.
Garcia, who has flashed his skills in two short major league stints, is a 22-year-old who would give the Phillies a right-handed hitting corner outfield complement to Domonic Brown, who is having a breakout season (19 HR, 49 RBI).
This is a case where the St. Louis Cardinals' best prospects are probably too good to give up for a closer—especially when your current closer is doing a terrific job—and any combination of the next wave of minor leaguers probably isn't enough to get Papelbon from the Phillies.
Time to get creative. Challenge No. 1. OK, let's expand this deal to include Jimmy Rollins (.704 OPS, 7 SB), who isn't having a great year, but is an upgrade over Pete Kozma (.627 OPS) at shortstop.
The Phillies might even eat some of his remaining contract (remainder of $11 million in 2013; $11 million in 2014; $11 million vesting option for 2015), if they get back some good talent in return.
Challenge No. 2. Get Rollins to waive his no-trade clause, a right he's earned by spending 10 years in the majors with at least five on the same team. I don't think it's a no-brainer for Rollins, but I think he'd waive it in order to play with a great organization in a great baseball town on a potential World Series favorite.
Edward Mujica has been solid in the closer's role (2.03 ERA, 20-for-20 in save opportunities), but he'll also be valuable teaming up in a setup role with emerging star Trevor Rosenthal (1.82 ERA, 34.2 IP, 7 BB, 49 K, 16 holds). Rosenthal to Mujica to Papelbon won't be a fun task for opposing teams trying to overcome a lead.
In order to land Papelbon and Rollins, the Cards will likely have to give up second-base prospect Kolten Wong (pictured), who would take over for Chase Utley if he's traded in July or when he becomes a free agent after the season (Freddy Galvis would take over at shortstop for Rollins) and starting pitcher Michael Wacha, who had two quality starts in three recent big league outings.
The Cardinals aren't an organization that likes to mortgage the future, but with Matt Carpenter proving he can handle the second-base job and an abundance of starting-pitching depth, they can afford to pull off a win-now move and still be left with a very good farm system.