Phillies Sign Jonathan Papelbon

The story just hit its apex. Just days after a four-year, $44 million deal with Ryan Madson fell through, the Phillies signed free agent reliever Jonathan Papelbon, according to Jim Salisbury of Salisbury reports that the contract is worth over $50 million.

Bill’s Take: Papelbon is a very good pitcher, arguably better than Madson in many ways. The former Red Sox closer finished the 2011 regular season with a 12.2 K/9 and 1.4 BB/9, setting a career-high with a strikeout-to-walk ratio approaching nine — that’s in Cliff Lee territory. He has been more or less dominant since becoming a fixture in the Boston bullpen in 2006. Still, Papelbon has not exceeded 70 innings in a season and the Phillies are paying, presumably, upwards of $12 million per season for one inning of dominance once every two or three nights on average.

Additionally, the amount of money being spent on a closer can potentially hamstring the Phillies’ ability to find an adequate shortstop and sign Cole Hamels to a contract extension. As has been said here many times recently, one does not need to allocate large sums of money in the bullpen in order to find success. Relievers — even those as consistently elite as Madson and Papelbon — are notoriously volatile on a year-to-year basis, so it makes more sense to shift your money to more reliable causes such as shortstop and the starting rotation.

It seems like there will be almost unanimous distaste for the Papelbon deal. The stat-heads will hate that a reliever got such a lucrative contract while traditionalists will dislike the guy’s personality. Let’s not forget, though, that he is a very good reliever — even if his genus is unpredictable — with the potential to be the frontman of a dominant bullpen.

Contract: no. Personality: no. Skills: yes.

Ryan’s takeJonathan Papelbon is an elite reliever, and has had sustained success in that role since 2006, sustaining a 200 ERA+ over six seasons. But this is just too much money and too many years for any reliever, save maybe Mariano Rivera. Relievers are a volatile breed by nature, and they pitch a vanishingly small portion of a team’s innings. Since 2006, Papelbon accounts for 4.6% of the Boston’s innings pitched. Most of his appearances involved high leverage innings, yes, but the point remains: free agent relievers, especially closers, are paid more than they’re really worth, and they’re not a safe enough bet to merit longer term contracts.

Take Brad Lidge, who received an extension from the Phillies following his excellent 2008 season. He was two years older than Paplebon is now, and had, in 461.2 innings as a full time reliever (Papelbon: 395.1), managed an excellent 144 ERA+ (Papelbon: 200). Pat Gillick gave Lidge more or less the same deal that Papelbon is now receiving, except a year shorter in base length (3 years, $37.5 million with a 2012 club option). I don’t have to tell you what an albatross that turned out to be. Granted, Lidge had serious injury concerns, and there is no reason to suspect Papelbon will crater in the same way, but the Phillies had a lesson on the danger of big money reliever deals that was impossible to miss, and appear to have missed it.

Had they taken it, and instead (as Bill has previously suggested) deployed their bevy of young arms as a cheap, internal solution, supplementing cheaply as necessary, this money could have been used to reap more value in areas of need. They would’ve kept their draft pick, and Ryan Madson would have walked, netting them more pick compensation to salve their depleted farm system (this benefit, of course, hinges on the outcome of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement). They did not take the lesson, though, and now Jonathan Papelbon is The Closer in Charlie Manuel’s bullpen. This means that the Phillies won’t even derive maximum value from their huge investment. Charlie Manuel has never leveraged his bullpen assets properly, and it’s a guarantee that Papelbon will see plenty of low leverage 9th innings, and sit on the bullpen bench while lesser pitchers labor through the most important plate appearances of the game because they don’t happen to come in a save situation. And what if Papelbon does run into problems? Remember this quote from 2009?

“Lidge is our closer,” Manuel said before the Phillies played the Washington Nationals. “You’ve definitely got to show confidence in him.”

The Phillies signed Lidge to a three-year extension midway through his stellar 2008 season.

“We signed him. He was perfect last year. Everybody knows about that,” Manuel said. “We signed him to a long-term deal as our closer. I’ve always looked at him as our closer.”

Remember how much it took to get Charlie Manuel to stop relying on that tired refrain?

Of course, we knew that the Phillies would not likely stay cheap and flexible with the bullpen. We knew that Ruben Amaro was intransigent in his desire to add a bonafide MLB “closer,” and that he could have picked worse options (Heath Bell, for one). And it is unlikely that this will impede the cash-flush Phillies from giving Cole Hamels a much-needed extension, and acquiring a starting shorstop. But for these things to bring us comfort, we have to first surrender ourselves to the spurious logic that constrained the Phillies to the best of some bad options. And when future misallocations of resources start to pile up and actually hurt the team’s financial flexibility, you’ll have to hope that the Amaro-induced Stockholm Syndrome is still strong enough. In 2015, when the Phillies are spending $36 million or more on a relief pitcher and an aging first baseman alone, I wager that “well it could have been worse!” won’t really be comforting.