Today, the Philadelphia Phillies decided that rather than retain incumbent closer Ryan Madson for four years/$44 million, they would be better suited to ink Red Sox fireman Jonathan Papelbon to a deal worth $50 million over the same period. The deal includes a vesting option for a fifth year.
The deal is the richest ever for a relief pitcher.
There's no doubt that Papelbon has been one of the most successful closers in baseball over the past six years. With Boston, Papelbon became the quickest pitcher to record 200 saves in the sport's history.
Despite all of this, paying $12.5 million/year for Papelbon—or any relief pitcher—is ridiculous.
Like most closers, Papelbon doesn't see much work—he's never reached 70 innings or 300 batters faced in a season.
That means that, barring injury, the Phillies will probably be paying him anywhere from $60,000 ti $70,000 per out until 2015. This is akin to paying a performer. They paid Roy Halladay about $28, 500 per out in 2011.
Relatively, the Phillies aren't stupid to pay Papelbon this sort of money. Over the last decade, the price tag for a "proven" closer has increased steadily. Last year, the Yankees relievers made more money than the entire Tampa Bay Rays personnel.
This is one of the most disturbing trends in the economics of the game. Teams are paying for pitchers based on the name on the back of their jersey, rather than the actual ability to pitch. Sure, signing Papelbon will calm down nerves in Philadelphia—until his first blown save.
Meanwhile, the Phillies could have had Madson, who put up 0.5 WAR more than Papelbon, for $1.5 million less per year. If they really wanted to save some cash, Antonio Bastardo, who put up 0.7 WAR in 2011, could fill the closer role while making just $419,000 in 2012.
Really though, the Phillies should look to the team that bumped them out of the the playoffs—the St. Louis Cardinals, who used effective bullpen management and years of minor league development to make an incredible run to the World Series. Meanwhile, the Cardinals didn't shell out more than $1.5 million for any of their relievers.
Several key relievers for the Cardinals—closer Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, and Mark Rzepczynski—all made the league minimum.
St. Louis's bullpen may be an outlier, but they are proof that teams should not shell out eight-figure deals for relief pitchers. A successful bullpen can be bought entirely for less than the entire worth of Papelbon's contract.