True relief aces are difficult to find these days, and established closers even more so. Teams are finally beginning to warm up to the idea of high-leverage situations and that the ninth inning is not always the most important one, but a shutdown reliever is still a hot commodity. With that in mind, let's take a look at one of the better closers this season, Jonathan Papelbon of the Phillies, and where he could end up come August. (Side note: remember during this analysis that it's the Phillies we're talking about, and Papelbon didn't get traded last year despite several good landing spots.)
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The Phillies followed up their hiccup of a five-game winning streak with more anemic offense, having been shut out 11 times already and ranking tied for 27th in the majors in runs scored. When you're averaging only 3.77 runs per game, save opportunities are few and far between. Papelbon has been one of the few bright spots on a wretched Philadelphia squad, shutting opponents down to the tune of a 1.35 ERA and 2.39 FIP. Some of his peripherals are troubling – his strikeout rate is his worst ever and he's walking his most batters since 2010 – but he is stranding 85.6% of runners and hasn't allowed a single home run. For contending teams in need of a bullpen boost, he's absolutely a viable option, especially when you consider the Phillies would be willing to eat some (most?) of his $13 million salary to get a better package of prospects.
As Bryan pointed out last year, Papelbon's calling card has always been his consistency. The trends that emerged in 2013 have continued, with Pap's velocity and strikeouts continuing to decline but his SwStr% staying steady (13% so far). He hasn't pitched in the postseason since 2009 with Boston, but Papelbon signed with Philly to come to a contender, which has
failed miserably not worked so well for him. Nobody questions his competitive desire, and for teams in need of a second-half boost, Papelbon's definitely on the market. He also stands out among the competition, as the other teams that might sell – the Diamondbacks, the Cubs, the Twins – can only offer up one top-flight option, Glen Perkins, among them. Addison Reed and Hector Rondon aren't going to cut it for a contender. Plus, Perkins is under contract through 2018, which means the Twins are going to want a pretty big return on him. With the possible exception of Steve Cishek leaving Miami, that leaves Papelbon as the best of the bunch.
So, where will he be traded? There's always the possibility he stays in Philadelphia, but with the emergence of sidearming lefty Jake Diekman and flamethrowing righty Ken Giles, Papelbon seems both expensive and expendable. Here's a few possible destinations:
Erstwhile closer Joe Nathan has already blown five saves and sports a lumbering 1.53 WHIP and 6.16 ERA. He's walking nearly 4 batters per 9 innings and his velocity is his lowest in the PITCHf/x era. With Joel Hanrahan on the DL and Joba Chamberlain untested in the closer's role, the Tigers could definitely use a veteran presence to nail down the back end of their bullpen. With hot pitching prospects like Robbie Ray (acquired in the Doug Fister trade), and developing third baseman Nick Castellanos, the Tigers have the assets needed to buy Papelbon and make a playoff run. (Yes, the Phillies would have a glut at third base with Cody Asche and Maikel Franco waiting in the wings, but Asche-to-left-field rumors have been floated for a while, and Castellanos can play outfield as well. It's time for the Domonic Brown experiment to end.)
San Francisco Giants
Sergio Romo's recent demotion left the door open for a still-uncertain closer by committee between Santiago Casilla and Jeremy Affeldt. It hasn't been nearly long enough for a proper evaluation, but Bruce Bochy wasn't willing to ride out Romo, whose peripherals are down across the board -- even though he's also been victimized by a massive 15.8% HR/FB rate, as opposed to 7.9% for his career. The Giants are in a tight divisional race with the Dodgers, the always-reliable Kenley Jansen, and his 30.5 K-BB%, so they need all the help they can get to remain in playoff position. The Giants, also in a win-now mode, are unlikely to deal any proven commodities, so maybe the speedy Fresno outfielder Gary Brown would be a good chip.
Los Angeles Angels
The Jason Grilli-Ernesto Frieri trade hasn't stabilized the Angels closer situation, but it did create one of the craziest coincidences I've ever heard of. Airport bathroom meetups aside, Los Angeles's AL team is much more lacking in the bullpen department than its Senior Circuit counterpart. With a collective 4.06 ERA (seventh-worst, as opposed to 3.67 for the Dodgers) and, remarkably, negative 0.2 fWAR, the Halos desperately need relief help. (Can Mike Trout pitch? Might that finally get him over the MVP hump in voters' minds?) With several infield prospects, including Jose Rondon, Kaleb Cowart, and Alex Yarbrough, the Phillies could start grooming an eventual replacement to their aging double-play combo of Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins.
With the Giants' bullpen instability, they could be one piece away from really defining roles for a talented relief corps. Plus, the Phillies have had July dealings with San Fran before, most notably the Hunter Pence trade. I don't see the Giants ceding any major-league-ready talent, so look for a package involving a young bullpen arm and an outfielder.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and ESPN; through July 6.
Steven Silverman is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and a student at Carnegie Mellon University. You can follow him on Twitter at @Silver_Stats.