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 CSNPhilly.com. 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.

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44 comments

  1. Nick

    November 11, 2011 03:23 PM

    This is an awful contract and I’m extremely upset about this. Yeah, the guy is good but this is not a good allocation of funds in the least.

  2. Marrrk

    November 11, 2011 03:30 PM

    I hate the contract but I’ll tell ya, nothing feels worse than blowing a lead in the 9th inning. Is that feeling of relative safety worth the amount of money top-line closers get? Maybe not. But it’s definitely worth a lot.

  3. bill

    November 11, 2011 03:50 PM

    Horrible contract, horrible GM.

    Probably my least favorite player in the MLB on top of that.

  4. Jim Z.

    November 11, 2011 03:50 PM

    Do you hear that sound? It’s the sound of an empire crumbling.

  5. Ryan Sommers

    November 11, 2011 03:53 PM

    @Marrk

    I agree, blown leads really blow. The thing is that, you can get that feeling of safety with a lot of other pitchers that haven’t been branded “closers” by the media or by old-school management. Other pitchers that don’t cost exorbitant amounts of money. Check out the guest post on closers from a few days ago; sums it up pretty nicely.

  6. Josh B

    November 11, 2011 03:57 PM

    All i can say is wow. I thought the phils would have learned from the lidge and howard deals. Why couldn’t they just let Madson walk and fill the role internally? Maybe pick someone up with good K/BB ratio but a poor ERA from last season? 50-60 mil is ridiculous

  7. Pete

    November 11, 2011 03:57 PM

    1.53 FIP last year for Paps, 2nd in the majors (60 IP) to Kimbrel.

    Take the money out of it and I like the move. The money is significant, but lets see what other moves we make before we say that it inhibits us from doing anything.

    I know the horrible Howard contract made me think we were screwed in making other moves, and then we nabbed Cliff Lee.

    Yes, Rube overpays on his contracts – but since we are becoming the Yankees of the NL, we might have to just get used to it. I’m not about to call someone a “horrible GM” when we just won 102 games with the best pitching staff of all time (refer to fangraphs article on that statement)

    Baseball is fun, and Papelbon will be fun to watch. As long as we keep selling out CBP, we’ll have enough money to get things done.

  8. Marrrk

    November 11, 2011 03:58 PM

    @Ryan

    I read it, and loved it, and totally agreed with it. I guess it’s just my mid-2012 summer self trying to justify this all to me.

  9. JC

    November 11, 2011 04:33 PM

    @Pete: But the contracts all will add up…Howard, Papelbon.. They still need to get Cole extended and find a SS. Eventually it catches up.

  10. Bob

    November 11, 2011 04:34 PM

    So, I take it from the reactions that you guys are paying his contract. If any NL team is able to over pay it is the Phillies. An empire crumbling? Get real the team won 102 games last season.

  11. Ryan Sommers

    November 11, 2011 04:45 PM

    “It’s not your money” is the most ridiculous non sequitur I think I’ve ever heard, yet it still rears it’s ugly head with every free agent signing

  12. Vishal Priyadarshan

    November 11, 2011 04:55 PM

    Most of you are morons. Getting the top closer on the market, and “the empire is crumbling.”? Get real. Madson must be asking for much more, and hes much less proven the Papelbon. Yes we are overpaying him, but if we didnt get him or Madson, then you goons would still be calling for Rubens head. Would you rather have Bastardo closing out games next year? Get real.

  13. Bill Baer

    November 11, 2011 04:56 PM

    Would you rather have Bastardo closing out games next year?

    Yes. I’ve been saying this for quite some time.

  14. Ryan Sommers

    November 11, 2011 04:56 PM

    Hahaha that is exactly what we said we wanted. Like eight times. Do you read things before you spew wild invective at the slightest hint of criticism

  15. Pete

    November 11, 2011 04:58 PM

    @JC

    I agree. I’m just saving my outrage for when it actually happens. There is always a chance they will increase payroll again this year, and it’s won’t happen at this point…

  16. Mike B.

    November 11, 2011 05:04 PM

    (With the caveat that your best reliever should work your highest-leverage inning, and with the understanding that this does not typically happen):

    How much of a premium is a high-leverage inning “worth” over a “normal” inning? Assuming Papelbon is making $13 million/year and will pitch ~70 innings in a season, that works out to ~$186,000/inning. Roy Halladay makes $20 million a year and pitches ~250 innings in a season…that’s ~$80,000/inning.

    Is an average “Papelbon inning” worth ~2.3 times what an average “Halladay inning” is? Certainly a high-leverage inning would be worth a premium over a “normal”, or low-leverage, inning. How much? That’s the question. I’d guess it’s not 2.3x.

  17. Vishal Priyadarshan

    November 11, 2011 05:11 PM

    @Bill

    I would see why after the kind of season he had last year, but he completely fell off the face of the earth last season. We still cant trust him. Not in that role.

  18. TH

    November 11, 2011 05:40 PM

    My thoughts?

    FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU

  19. Padraic

    November 11, 2011 06:09 PM

    Bizarre, the poll on the right lists 55% in favor of signing Madson, who would have cost nearly as much, has far less postseason experience, is not as good, and has less of an injury history.

    I can’t imagine how you could have a 140-150M payroll and then turn the ninth inning over to a guy who looked like absolute toast down the stretch last year. It’s a nice theory on paper – obviously teams devote too much to bullpens – but there is no way you could send the Antonio Bastardo who finished up 2011 out there in April. There would be absolute panic if he flamed out in two or three games. All you had to do was watch Feliz in the WS to know the their is such thing as “fairy closer dust.”

  20. KAL

    November 11, 2011 06:20 PM

    Not a good contract, but where is the personality concern coming from? As a Phils fan living in Boston, I can say Pap’s personality has never been an issue. He’s an intense competitor and proven winner.

  21. Bill Baer

    November 11, 2011 06:24 PM

    Just an outsider’s perspective. I personally don’t buy into it but pretty much all the non-Saberists I’ve seen react to the deal don’t like his personality/antics.

  22. Josh G

    November 11, 2011 09:42 PM

    “Given the number of closing options on the market, Cherington didn’t think his team would feel comfortable offering a four-year contract to a closer as the Phillies did with Papelbon.”

    This is my problem with the contract. When Papelbon is 35, will we be able to trade him away with this contract so that our hotter, younger bullpen arm can take the highest leverage innings?

  23. LTG

    November 11, 2011 10:06 PM

    BB,

    Stay above the fray: initial reactions are always just that, initial.

    And as far as antics are concerned, isn’t goofy and hard-working precisely what fits in with the Phils’ pitching staff?

  24. JB Allen

    November 11, 2011 10:24 PM

    Well, the signing sure wasn’t surprising.

  25. LTG

    November 11, 2011 10:32 PM

    And, in order to calm the riot, whether or not this is a bad move will depend on what other moves RAJ conjures over the winter, and whether Montgomery relaxes the restrictions on the purse-strings. That RAJ overpaid for a bullpen arm is not by itself a significant mistake (nor as huge a mistake as the Howard extension anyway).

  26. hk

    November 12, 2011 06:46 AM

    “When Papelbon is 35, will we be able to trade him away with this contract so that our hotter, younger bullpen arm can take the highest leverage innings?”

    The answer is almost certainly “no” unless they eat most of the contract, especially if Charlie is still managing and RAJ is still the GM. For one thing, this regime has been reluctant to change closers (see Lidge, Brad circa 2009) unless they are forced to do so by injury. Remember, this front office thinks closers need a certain mentality – the one that Madson never had until he had it – so they will be unlikely to give a hotter, younger bullpen arm a chance to close if Papelbon is healthy. Therefore, unless Papelbon gets hurt, he will almost certainly be the closer in 2011-4.

  27. hk

    November 12, 2011 06:50 AM

    LTG,

    In the short-term, you are right. The opportunity cost of paying too much money may or may not impact the team’s moves during the rest of this free agency. However, we do have to assume that there is a limit – be it the luxury tax line or some higher figure – that they’ll spend and giving any player one year too many and ~20% too much AAV will eventually hurt the team whether it’s this off-season or a future one. Of course, the Howard extension (two years too long and ~40% too much AAV) will hurt more.

  28. Jim

    November 12, 2011 09:00 AM

    I don’t hate this deal, but I don’t love it either. I’m also not concerned about payroll implications because there has been zero evidence to date that big contracts hamper this teams ability to make other moves.

    Maybe 3 years down the line it will come back to bite us, but until then I’ll just enjoy the ride and appreciate our teams dedication to winning.

  29. Michael

    November 12, 2011 10:33 AM

    Re: Sample Size w/ Closers

    Hey, I dip in and out here, so I apologize if this query gets me laughed out of the room.
    Shouldn’t the metric for closers be adjusted regarding sample size? I mean, since the sample size for closers is traditionally smaller — and is much lower than it is for closers — isn’t comparing said sample sizes an apples to oranges kinda deal? Yes, I think it is interesting that certain starters prove effective as closers, but I still see that as a capable individual switching skill set (a SS moving to 3B, say) than proof that starter success = closer success based on sample size. (After all, and I don’t know this, I wonder what successful starters have flamed out in the pen.)
    It would seem that the numbers should stress high-leverage situations within the closers sample size, rather than simply minimize the closer role based on a notion of sample size that seems based on the starter role. After all, the closer in today’s game is a very critical, yet very different role, than the starter.
    Or, Bill, am I just rephrasing your argument for a Phils’ “bullpen by committee”?

  30. Michael

    November 12, 2011 10:35 AM

    Dang nabbit….

    One line should read:

    “… – and is much lower than it is for STARTERS – …”

  31. Bill Baer

    November 12, 2011 03:21 PM

    People harp about sample size with closers because it defines how confident we can be with the given information. We are much more likely to trust a pitcher’s strikeout rate over 600 innings than over 60. Essentially, the larger the sample size, the more precise we can be in making claims about a player’s skill.

  32. Phillie697

    November 12, 2011 05:58 PM

    For once, I will refrain from pouring oil to the flame, which would be a first for me… Except to say this: For those of you making fun of the “empire crumbling” comment, actually the empire didn’t crumble by this contract; it started a year and half ago when we gave Howard his extension. This will just hasten the process.

    I’m all for sacrificing the future for the present, but at some point shouldn’t some sacrifices just be considered dumb? For example, we mortgaged our future for Ryan Howard to get… literally nothing, since at the start of his extension, we already KNOW the question isn’t whether he will perform enough to justify the contract; the answer to that question is a given. The question is in fact will he contribute any value at all, and that is a sombering thought.

    Whether Phillies will have unlimited money to spend in the future or not, whether we mortgaged our future or not, does anyone actually believe Papelbon will perform to the value of his contract, even those of you who thinks that we need a “top-line closer”? If not, how can you defend this contract, empire-crumbling or not? At some point, the overpaying itself should be evident enough. I’m sure the Yankees would like to have that Soriano contract back.

  33. LTG

    November 12, 2011 06:11 PM

    But Soriano was hurt most of the year and ineffective otherwise. That’s not a helpful comparison. If Papelbon averages 2.5 WAR over the life of the contract, he earns his keep. That is possible, though unlikely. If he averages 2.0 WAR over the life of the contract he does not earn his keep, but overpaying can be justified if it allows the team to acquire him and does not prevent the team from acquiring other valuable assets. 50/50 shot here. Less than 2.0 per year but greater than 1.0 and I’m not sure how to make the judgment, and this is the most likely outcome. Less than 1.0 per year and we’re getting close to Soriano territory. Overpaying by itself is not a mistake. The amount of overpayment and the ramifications of it for the rest of the team’s constitution must be taken into account.

    However, as BB rightly points out, regardless of the judgments about the market value of WAR, there is much less justification for overpaying for bullpen pieces because young pitchers can make for good bullpen arms. Since the Phils have a plethora of young bullpen talent, this strikes me as the best reason to dislike the Papelbon signing.

  34. Phillie697

    November 13, 2011 10:52 AM

    It’s not a helpful comparison? Do you have some magic 8 ball that I don’t know about that can guarantee us that Papelbon won’t get hurt? Do you think the Yankees thought they signed Soriano expecting that he was going to get hurt? It’s ALL part of the equation when you sign a 30-something reliever to a $13 mil/year contract. Heck, Soriano wasn’t even 30-something. The overpaying itself sometimes IS the mistake, i.e. Ryan Howard. Like the article said, if you looked at Lidge circa 2008, you would have been incredibly happy with that contract. Now? Not so much, and there is a reason for that.

    I wouldn’t even pay Craig Kimbrel $13 mil a year, and he’s just as good a pitcher as Papelbon but with a MUCH lower risk. All of your arguments for the Phillies not to sign Papelbon applies equally to Craig Kimbrel if he was on the FA market right now (insufficient allocation of funds, many young and much cheaper talent already on the team, etc.), yet are you really going to argue that there is no difference between Papelbon and Kimbrel? Analyzing any deal with rosy-colored glasses on can make anything look good.

  35. Phillie697

    November 13, 2011 10:56 AM

    I meant to say inefficient allocation of funds, not insufficient. Doh!

  36. LTG

    November 13, 2011 05:09 PM

    @Phillie

    Dude, I like your comments a lot, but you are not very good at figuring out what commitments I incur from what other commitments I’ve made explicit. I agree that Kimbrel would be a better investment at the price and that all of the arguments I made apply to him just as they do to Papelbon. This is possible because the arguments I gave with respect to evaluating Papelbon’s signing were not exhaustive. In fact, they only were meant to show a reasonable way to evaluate the question of over-paying. As far as the arguments I attributed to BB, I can say of them that they hold of Kimbrel too, but that Kimbrel would be preferable under the condition that the team is committed to bringing in an established closer, but that finding that value at a cut-rate would be better if feasible (and in this case it looks feasible) because it would allow the extra money to be put to adding more value elsewhere. Were money no object, why not sign Kimbrel or Papelbon?

    On the possibility of injury, what rule for reasoning are you proposing? It can’t be that we should judge these decisions on the basis of worst-case hindsight, since that would cause inaction. Is it something like, never sign a 30-year-old+ pitcher for market value for fear of injury risk? Again that sounds too restrictive when trying to build the best possible team. And it also seems mostly covered by the BB arguments about the availability of cheap young bullpen arms (except, of course, when they are not available).

    On whether over-paying by itself is ever a mistake. How did you mean the reference to the Howard contract? If the Phillies were willing to a) cut Howard and b) sign Fielder or Pujols, then over-paying Howard would not be a mistake; rather, paying him something rather than nothing would be the mistake. Also, if the Phillies were willing to spend money like the Yankees, the Howard contract might not put any limit on what other players the team could afford to acquire, in which case the contract would not be a mistake. From a team-building perspective, by which I mean doing whatever it takes to put the best team that one is able to construct on the field, that Howard makes much, much more than his production justifies is immaterial. I’m sure the accountants would grumble but they aren’t looking at the wins and losses as their bottom line.

  37. KH

    November 14, 2011 01:11 PM

    Madson at 11 mil per year >>>>>>>>>> Then Papelbon at 12.5 mill per year. We don’t even have to get into the lunacy of paying any reliever this much cash. It wasn’t even the right move outside of that. You could have gotten an equal pitcher, or 99% equal for, significantly less money.

  38. LTG

    November 14, 2011 10:54 PM

    Who is this equal pitcher or even 99% equal? Papelbon is the best pitcher on the market. I tried once to argue on fangraphs that Madson should be considered Papelbon’s peer. Then I looked at the stats and couldn’t make the argument, not even close when you look at multiple seasons. The question is, and this might have been the point you intended, whether a guy as good as Papelbon is a necessary component in a good bullpen on a winning team. I’m guessing he isn’t.

  39. Phillie697

    November 15, 2011 01:25 PM

    @LTG,

    To say something is a mistake if we can later make up for it is pretty, ahm, weak argument, and you know better than that. Even if RAJ has the will and the resources to cut Howard RIGHT NOW and sign Pujols, the team might not suffer, not next year anyway, but are you seriously suggesting that signing Howard to that god-awful extension which necessitates cutting him while still paying him $25 mil a year for 5 years AND having to pay Pujols whatever it is we have to pay him, that isn’t a mistake? Really? As I mentioned in another post, do you think we have Scrooge McDuck for an owner? Yeah sure if you take the financial argument to the EXTREME, where we LITERALLY have unlimited money, MAYBE you might make some sense, but most of us sane people don’t deal in the super extremes.

    My point of bringing up Kimbrel is that I think it’s a mistake to sign even someone like Kimbrel to a $13 million a year contract, nevermind Papelbon, who is almost 10 years older, therefore 1) is more likely to be on the decline, 2) more likely to incur injuries. As far as your argument that thinking of the worst-case scenario leads to inaction, it is equally as, if not more, stupid to act with what I consider the “tooth fairy” scenario in mind. Signing Papelbon to a $13 million a year contract is going to work out ONLY if he doesn’t get hurt and doesn’t pitch worse!!! Sometimes, NOT acting is better than acting. Even if money is not an issue, wasting a roster spot, feeling the need to pitch a no-longer-effective-but-we-are-still-paying-him-$13-fing-million-a-year pitcher, all those things will STILL hurt the team. Exhibit A, Raul Ibanez. Exhibit B, Brad Lidge. BB’s point that we ALREADY seen the negative side of that argument, yet we plunged head-first into it AGAIN. That’s the very definition of stupid.

    So no, I don’t think I’ve misconstrued your arguments. I just don’t think you have all of the negative implications in your head right now, since you choose to ignore them.

  40. Phillie697

    November 15, 2011 01:26 PM

    @LTG,

    That first sentence should say, “To say something is NOT a mistake…”

  41. Phillie697

    November 15, 2011 01:31 PM

    @LTG,

    To supplement, I didn’t say don’t sign 30-something pitchers under any circumstances. If Papelbon signed for $5 million a year, I would have been doing cartwheels and writing songs about RAJ and his acumen. Everything is relative.

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