[Editor's Note: Welcome to the first edition of our MLB Trade Rumor Analysis series. We here at Beyond the Box Score love trade speculation as much as the next baseball fan, so we'll be writing up some of the players who might get dealt before the July 31 deadline. Of course, we'll add a healthy dose of objectivity and analysis to the proceedings. Hope you enjoy it!]
When the Philadelphia Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million contract before the 2012 season, they probably thought they were adding a final piece to a championship puzzle. Now, about a season and a half into that deal, the team looks more like an also-ran than a viable contender. With the team's veterans playing far below the team's (some might say unreasonable) expectations, and a newly-competitive NL East, the Phillies are on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs this year, and probably next.
So, naturally, speculation has abounded about the status of Jonathan Papelbon. As elite closers are often seen as a luxury to non-contending teams, and a vital part of any playoff roster, it may be time for a different team to employ the 32-year-old stopper.
Let's talk a little about what Papelbon does, and what we can expect from him moving forward. First, the contract: Papelbon is signed for $13 million this year, as well as that same amount in 2014 and 2015. He also has a vesting option for another $13 million in 2016 if he finishes 55 games in 2015, or 100 games in 2014 and 2015 combined. What that means, is that he's an expensive option for any team. Especially for a reliever.
So why does Jonathan Papelbon make so much money? Because he's (1) very good and (2) very consistent.* Since 2006, one could argue that the only other reliever even close to Pap's combination of consistency and skill is the inhuman Mariano Rivera. Nice company to be in.
(Note: The last few games notwithstanding.)
Papelbon's career regular-season numbers since 2006 are below, along with some of his best contemporaries:
If you look at these numbers, Papelbon was one of, if not the, most effective reliever of the past 7-8 years. His ability to strike guys out, limit HR and walks, and perform in the clutch was -- and in many ways, still is -- elite. He did all of this while performing in the hitter-friendly parks of Fenway and Citizen's Bank, no less. And he's got respectable postseason numbers as well. In 27 innings, he's only given up three runs. That's not Mariano, but it's also good enough for a 1.00 postseason ERA. Most playoff teams would sell a prospect for that kind of certainty.
Of course, paying for past work can be a mistake, especially with relievers. How good is Papelbon right now?
It's hard to say that Jonathan Papelbon is getting better with age. I mean, you can't really expect that to be true. Over the past three seasons, Papelbon has seen an uptick in hlittis HR rate and a slight uptick in his strikeout rate as well. The underlying performance may not be *quite* as good as he's done in the past, but it's not dramatically worse.
This season, Papelbon has struggled a little bit, at least in terms of his usual performance. His strikeout rate is currently the lowest it's ever been in his career, at only 25.2%. He's still stranding runners, and not walking folks, but his 1.95 season ERA is probably less representative of his true talent level than his 3.02 FIP. He's getting roughly the same SwStr% as his career numbers (12.7% in 2013, 13.6% for his career), he's working in the zone perhaps a little more, and he's probably lost about a mile per hour of velocity off his heater. That fastball could warm up a little, however, as the season goes on.
More than anything else, Papelbon's calling card is his reliability and durability. In a position where most closers have one or two good seasons, then fail, then perhaps recover, then perhaps fail, ad nauseum, Jonathan Papelbon is a Rivera-like picture of consistency. He's never had an injury severe enough to stop him from throwing 58 or more innings in the bigs. He's never had a full season where he's failed to save more than 30 games. While most closers are glass cannons, Jonathan Papelbon is, well, a regular cannon.
So now that we know what Papelbon is ... well, what would that be worth to a contender. I'd estimate that Papelbon, given his slow decline, his reliability, and his still-solid skills, would probably be worth about a win this season, and about two wins over the next two seasons -- give or take. Five wins over two-and-a-half years, for an approximate cost of $32 million. Of course, that's not counting the playoffs, where wins are worth quite a bit more, and closers can really express their value to a team. At $6 million and change per win, those are some expensive wins, but that's not all that far off the market rate for a win these days.
At the same time, if a team is able to get that value for much cheaper, then Papelbon might not be what a team is looking for. Let's examine the market.
Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports
So what other high-leverage relievers are going to be out there on the trade market this season? Let's first look at the other teams that look like the most likely to be out of contention: the Angels, Astros, Brewers, Cubs, Mariners, Marlins, Mets, Twins and White Sox. These are the teams I'd posit as "sellers."
Of those nine franchises, I don't think it's going out on a limb to say that there aren't a lot of terrific options. Out of that group, you'd probably look at Bobby Parnell, Glen Perkins, and Tom Wilhelmsen as the best stoppers of the bunch. Wilhelmsen has been pitching worse than usual of late, while Parnell and Perkins are on friendly contracts for their respective teams. If the Twins and Mets aren't obliged to deal, then you could make an argument that Papelbon might be the only "great" closer on the market. That puts the Phillies in a nice position to make a deal.
(Though, Dave Cameron makes a compelling case that contending teams should add Jesse Crain instead. But "proven closer" and "saves" and blah blah blah, am I right?)
As for the free agent class of 2014, the word "meh" comes to mind. Fernando Rodney and Grant Balfour will be available, provided everything goes to plan, as well as the aforementioned Crain. Carlos Marmol, Frank Francisco, Ryan Madson and Joel Hanrahan will be out there, but they all have question marks. No option will be as reliable as Papelbon, so a team with a two- or three-year plan may want to act now, if ninth-inning surety is what they're in the market for.
The important thing to note here is that (most) teams ascribe additional value to the "proven closer" tag, or at least the perceived ability to "handle" the ninth inning. Maybe there's something to this. Maybe there's not. But Papelbon is the living expression of the "proven closer" tag, and for once, it's certainly an earned title. This move gives him quite a bit more value than other pitchers, and puts him in, I would say, a class of his own in the market.
A few teams have been named as potential landing spots for Papelbon if he is indeed dealt by the Phillies. The Tigers are the first team that comes to mind, considering their combination of dominance and a desperate lack of a closer. Then there's the Cardinals -- who lost Jason Motte to injury -- and the Red Sox. The Sox are dealing with some ineffectiveness from Andrew Bailey (and the Joel Hanrahan acquisition has been a total fiasco), and there are plenty who'd like to see Paps shipping up to Boston again.
The Tigers want a proven closer. Some might argue that the Tigers need a proven closer. And Jon Papelbon is a proven closer. Jose Valverde is not making anyone happy. So this is a very logical fit, especially considering the Tigers' window to win and high payroll.
If Papelbon were to go to Detroit, the return from the Tigers would likely be limited. After all, Detroit has one of the worst farm systems in baseball. Top prospect Nick Castellanos is probably too rich of a get, and I can't see the team parting with Bruce Rondon, this year's original top closer candidate.
Perhaps either Rick Porcello or, more likely, Drew Smyly could be the factor in a deal with the Tigers. Porcello has always had an FIP that belies a rough ERA, but this season he's striking out more hitters at the expense of launching more home runs. I'm not convinced the Tigers would want to give up a critical rotation piece, though, and that's where Smyly comes in.
Smyly had a very nice run as a starter in 2012, posting a 3.99 ERA underpinned with a 3.83 FIP, primarily pitching in the rotation. This year he's been even better (1.94 ERA, 2.21 FIP), which should be assumed given that he's pitched only out of the bullpen. Personally, I'd like to see Smyly transition back to the rotation, and if the Tigers think that's a possibility, dealing Porcello doesn't seem to bad. If they don't, well, dealing him for Papelbon and his "proven closer" tag isn't the worst idea in the world -- though I'm not convinced that Papelbon would be a substantive upgrade given how well Smyly is pitching right now.k
If you think that Smyly is going to be worth more than five wins before he hits free agency (I do!), then that could be a bad deal for the Tigers. If you think Porcello is going to be worth more than five wins before he hits free agency (I don't!), then this could be a bad deal for the Tigers. But Porcello-for-Papelbon seems like a decent fit from my perspective.
With Jason Motte out with an injury, the
super-annoying very talented Cardinals team is without a "proven closer" of their own. While Edward Mujica has held down the role with Motte out, and flamethrower Trevor Rosenthal is actually doing the dirty work of being an elite reliever, one could easily see how the Cardinals might be a fit for Paps. Like the Tigers, the Cards are expected to be a force in the playoffs, and they currently hold the best record in baseball. They've also got one of the best farm systems in baseball, and could happily deal a prospect or young player if it could bring the team back a winning return.
We all know by now that the Dodgers are spending money like it's going out of style. This is a team that offered up a huge contract to Brandon League, and we all know how well that's turned out so far. And given the team's reluctance to put all their eggs in Kenley Jansen's basket, they may want a more reliable answer in the ninth if they continue to contend.
The Rockies are in a similar position to the Dodgers -- if they're still in contention or likely to win the NL West, adding Papelbon might be a big boon for a team that's likely to need lots of bullpen help at the end of the season and in the playoffs. After all, I certainly wouldn't consider their rotation "stable" in any sense of the word. And even if you might be terrified that Paps will give up a boatload of homers in Denver, he and Betancourt might be the most reliable 1-2 closing punch in the last 10-20 years.
In any circumstance, Papelbon is a rather unique pitcher, a closer who you can count on. And while that might make him worth something to any number of contenders, the fact that relievers have limited impact and his high-priced contract while in his early thirties might drop the value of a potential return. If the Phillies deal him at the deadline, I'd expect him not to bring back a top-5 prospect or an impact young big leaguer.
At the same time, a player like Papelbon is worthy of bringing in some sort of solid return. I'd look for the Phillies to make a deal, and start building towards the future without the (other) iron man of the ninth inning.
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.