Phillies Continue to Confuse with Closer Claim

When asked about the possibility of trading closer Jonathan Papelbon, GM Ruben Amaro said this:

Amaro was just as adamant that it was illogical for the Phillies to consider trading Papelbon. The 32-year-old closer is in the second year of a four-year, $50 million contract that also contains a vesting option for 2016.

“People would like us to improve our club, but at what cost?” Amaro said. “You have to have replacement pieces if you’re going to trade someone like that. And we don’t have a guy who I consider a closer on our club, other than Papelbon. He’s the best we’ve got, and one of the best in baseball, if not the best.

“I believe you have to have a closer to win and have success, and I believe in having a (true) closer,” Amaro added. “Not a closer by committee. A guy who stops the game when you’re supposed to win late. We don’t have a replacement to do that. … And I don’t see any closer on the market who would be anywhere near as good as Papelbon. I just don’t see it. So if you want to win, why would we want to trade a guy like that?”

In a nice bit of timing, Jonah Keri has a great piece on Grantland about “the flawed importance of the closer“. Keri shows that even after the advent of the save rule, teams have experienced no more success utilizing a designated closer than they were back in the 1960’s. With all of the money being thrown around for proven closers over the years — Papelbon, by the way, earned the most lucrative contract of its kind — you would expect that teams would have fared even marginally better, but most teams have yet to adopt a more modern mindset when it comes to utilizing relief pitchers.

Last year, I showed graphically how poorly Papelbon was being used by the Phillies. When the important situations came up late in the game last year, Papelbon was in the middle of it very rarely. Rather, he would enter games when his team had a high probability of winning already. At the beginning of the top of the ninth, the home team has an 82.5, 91.8, and 96.3 percent chance of winning the game with a one-, two-, and three-run lead, respectively, per The Book. Compare that to a situation in which I strongly felt the Phillies needed to use Papelbon recently: on Friday against the Brewers, in the bottom of the 8th of a 4-4 game, after Carlos Gomez reached base on Michael Young‘s fielding error and promptly advanced to second on a stolen base. In that situation, Papelbon’s skill set — striking out hitters and inducing weak infield pop-ups — is ideal since he is so adept at limiting base advancement. Luckily, the combination of Michael Stutes and Jeremy Horst were able to get out of the inning, but Horst eventually allowed a walk-off single the next inning because Manuel continued to refuse to use his closer in a tie game on the road.

The organization, which allows Manuel to continue to use Papelbon as poorly as he has, is extracting as little value out of their $50 million investment in Papelbon as possible. Yesterday, he earned his first save in over two weeks and appeared for just the third time in the month of June. (It is June 14.) One of those appearances was on the 9th against the Brewers in which the Phillies trailed 8-1 when Papelbon entered the game in the ninth (his team’s win expectancy was zero percent after rounding); he was only being used to shake off the rust from his prior lack of action.

By A) using Papelbon as poorly and inconsistently as they have; and B) refusing to trade him, the Phillies are compounding a litany of mistakes. With one of the worst Minor League systems in baseball, with a roster that is old, expensive, and injury prone, and with little hope of competing in any meaningful way in the post-season this year, it would behoove the Phillies to restructure the roster in a way that bolsters future teams. Amaro recently talked about “retooling” like the Red Sox did, but that is impossible so long as he steadfastly refuses to consider recouping value on assets that aren’t paying dividends in the present. The Red Sox waved goodbye to Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford, earning a combined $250 million. The Phillies talk like they want to be more like the Red Sox, but act more like the Mets.

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18 comments

  1. nik

    June 14, 2013 06:51 PM

    I think you’re as delusional as Amaro if you don’t think he believes what he said today.

  2. Buzzsaw90

    June 14, 2013 07:09 PM

    Been fiddling around with the play index on BBRef. Looked up the worst pitching performances in postseason history based on WPA. Mostly a bunch of relief appearances where victory became defeat.

    #16 Mitch in ’93 WS
    #14 Neidenfuer 85 playoffs with Jack Clark
    #12 Bob Stanley 86 WS
    #3 Donnie Moore 86 ALCS

    and #1 is an old Phillies memory

    1976 NLCS game 3 and Ron Reed -0.937 WPA

    3-0 Phillies in the bottom 7th 2 on none out, Reed enters

    Single (-19%)
    F8
    Walk
    F4
    Triple(-46%)
    F7

    4-3 Reds -52% for the inning

    Phillies take 5-4 lead in the 8th
    Reed pitches scoreless 8th

    Phils add insurance run in the top 9th, up 6-4
    Reed enters the bottom of the 9th, Phillies with a 92% chance to win

    Home Run Foster -10%
    Home Run Bench -44%

    Reed exits the game. Garber loses it 5 batters later

  3. Bizono

    June 14, 2013 07:21 PM

    Hard to know whose worse – Charlie or Rube.

  4. Oscar

    June 14, 2013 08:20 PM

    Great writing.

  5. Kevin H

    June 14, 2013 11:34 PM

    I think Amaro sees the Papelbon signing as a big success for him because Paps hasn’t missed time and he has performed as good as can be expected to this point. As obviously foolish and inefficient as it is, he’s going to hold on to and cherish Papelbon as long as he can. It’s stupid, but not as stupid as giving him that big contract in the first place. I’m certain he won the bidding war against nobody.

  6. Joecatz

    June 15, 2013 06:23 AM

    Two things here

    1. RAJ is right when he says there’s no one on the team or on the market who can fit into that cossr role the way Papelbon can.

    2. He’s completely wrong about the closer philosophy but that won’t change as long as he’s in charge and frankly, it won’t change for 90% of the GMs or managers that replace him or Charlie should that happen.

    So the question becomes more, for me at least, whether trading Papelbon will make the team better. And unless they change their philosophy the answer is no.

    So in that case you don’t trade Papelbon. Mainly because he’ll just go out and spend the 6mm a year you save after eating most of his contract on an inferior closer.

    It’s the same problem with Lee. Ruben won’t go out and redistribute lees money properly, he’ll go out and sign two inferior starting pitchers making 8-10mm a year.

    Vicious circle of stupidity.

  7. Fish Fry

    June 15, 2013 09:40 AM

    What continues to baffle me, Paps hasn’t pitched for days and the Phils have a 1 run lead entering the 8th inning; Why they won’t run him out for a 2 inning save when you have absolutely no confidence in the rest of the bullpen is the epitome of bullpen mismanagement.

    Hey 4 1/3 innings, no runs last night and Paps got a save. Wow.

  8. Pencilfish

    June 15, 2013 10:59 AM

    Charlie is not signed beyond 2013. If the Phillies miss the playoffs again, chances are we’ll have a new skipper. Your point A) may no longer be valid in 2014.

    RAJ is right to say winning is correlated with good pitching, particularly starting pitching. That’s consistent with his stance about not trading Pap, Lee or Hamels. Not sure if he holds to his words when teams come dangling deals next month, though. Utley, Halladay, Ruiz and Young are FA at the end of the season, and this will free up $46M, which I hope he spends mostly on offense. RAJ can get some farm hands and fringe ML players by trading away some or all impending FA. Then, he can use the $46M to sign FA this winter. Trading Pap (and presumably eating some of his salary) will have minimal impact on this strategy, so I’m not surprised he dismissed it.

  9. joecatz

    June 15, 2013 11:12 AM

    Pencilfish,

    I think the key to understanding the trade deadline is all about how the players you get/money you save is allocated.

    The one thing that wont happen regardless is that the phillies won’t suddenly become a 100mm payroll team.

    If you trade Lee, at 25mm per for the next three (assuming he wants his vest guaranteed to accept a deal, which he will) and you eat about 7mm per to get a top prospect back….

    now you have 18mm left. you have to replace Lees production with that money.

    Same with Papelbon. to get a decent return, the phillies will have to eat about 3-4mm a year on his deal.

    problem is they won’t just go with a cheap closer and let three rookies trot out in the rotation behind Kendrick and Hamels.

    You take about 6mm of the 18 left from Lee and give it to Kendrick in arbitration, and they’ll go out and spend 12mm a year on someone half as good as Lee? and 6-7mm for a Brandon league type closer??

    Problem is unless you GET the ridiculous returns that are being rumored (tavares or Profar for Lee, Castellanos for Papelbon) you really are better off keeping them.

    especially when, in the offseason, or next deadline, they’re both more valueable and cost less.

    and frankly, You don’t dump 25mm of good money in Lee if your not going for an all out rebuild here.

    Not unless they get true top tier impact “severely overpay me for him and we’ll talk” talent.

  10. Pencilfish

    June 15, 2013 12:58 PM

    joecatz,

    I was coming from a different perspective. Great pitching is a prerequisite for winning baseball. So I understand RAJ wanting to keep Pap, Lee and Hamels and build around them. Of course, the team has to score runs to win, but with ~$46M this winter, something can be done about it. It should be easier to find good bats than to find great pitching in FA. For Howard, Halladay, Utley, etc, their peak years of productivity are behind them, but it certainly is not for the above-mentioned trio. At least not yet.

    Second, I’ve always been skeptical of trading top MLB talent in their peak years (Lee, Papelbon, etc) for “top” prospects. I remember the Rolen and Schilling trades. Prospects are simply unrealized potential. Far too often, they don’t reach their ceiling (or worse–flame out), top talent or not. I recently recalled a conversation I had with someone who labelled Rick Porcello “special”, “ace” and “#1 starter” back in 2008. He was signed by the Tigers to the richest contract ever for a high-schooler back then. Five years later and 700+ IP later, he still hasn’t realized his potential. As recently as last month, people were wondering about Brown, too. Bottom line is, prospects are risky. Always have been and always will be.

    For those who argue we should maximize the return by selling high on Lee and Papelbon, I’m sure contenders plan to trade high on some of their “top” prospects or marginal ML players, too. RAJ did with Happ, Worley, Drabek, etc. The true top tier impact talent you speak of (ie, the can’t miss talent) is highly unlikely to come to Philly in exchange for Lee or Papelbon. That’s just fantasy.

  11. joecatz

    June 15, 2013 01:10 PM

    Pencilfish,

    Yeah I think we’re advocating the same thing here. For me the biggest mistake GM’s make when they deal at the deadline comes from the fact that theres a deadline. They try and make the best deal they can, but to a limited market. and in a lot of cases, they end up with quantity over quality mainly because they don’t wanna bust out completely on the deal.

    So what scares me the most about say, a Cliff Lee to texas trade isn’t losing Lee, o much as it is taking say, Mike Olt, Justin Grimm or Martin Perez and another prospect over just Profar, because no one else put a better deal out there.

    and the second part that I hate is that in three months time, the pool of teams who would be interested in Cliff Lee likely multiplies by 5 or 6, he costs them about $12mm less…. and you have more leverage.

    That all said, i disagree that Lee or Papelbon can demand that high end talent. 7 of the top 20 mid season prospects last year were dealt from the deadline through opening day and that would have been more had Justin upton okayed the deal to Seattle. teams are more than willing to part with top talent.

    I just don’t see Ruben Amaro parting with Lee or Papelbon. Mainly because barring some epic 10 game losing streak they’ll be within 5-8 games at the deadline, sitting at or above .500 and its more likely that you see a little double maneuvering.

    they’ll release Delmon.
    They’ll shop Utley and Michael Young and chooch
    they’ll buy and they’ll sell.

    But they won’t do nothing. Thats for sure.

  12. Greg

    June 16, 2013 08:10 PM

    It would probably be ridiculous to trade pap and move Doc to closer, wouldn’t it?

  13. tom

    June 17, 2013 09:04 AM

    @joecatz – so you’re saying that the closer role is irrelevant and philosophy is wrong, but no one else can replace Papelbon (in that irrelevant role that he fills?)if the philosophy is wrong – than the whole point is that Yes, someone else can replace Pap in a “closer” role.

    @pencicilfish – I agree great pitching is important. But from 2008 to 2012 – our worst pitching staff was in 2008… just saying.

  14. Pencilfish

    June 17, 2013 11:11 AM

    Tom,

    True, from 2008-2012, our worst pitching staff was in 2008, but we had great offense from 2007 to 2010/2011. The Phillies out-slugged the opposition. The 2013 offense is not in the same league, to put it charitably.

    My point is if you are going to build a winning team, the most difficult part is having great pitching, specially starting pitching. Keeping Lee, Hamels, Kendrick and Pap means we have a #1, #2, #3 or #4, and a lights-out closer, so the toughest task is already addressed. With ~$46M to spend this winter, the Phillies need to find some offense. In my mind, RF, 3B, 2B and C can be upgraded internally or externally (trades, resigning existing players and/or signing FA). If we are going to compete while Lee, Hamels, Kendrick and Pap are at or near their peaks, the offensive shortcomings need to be addressed this off-season. You can’t rely on scoring ~3.6 runs/game on average and hope to win consistently.

  15. Phillie697

    June 17, 2013 12:39 PM

    @Joecatz,

    Your analysis forgets that when you don’t give your manager a “proven” closer, he’s FORCED to use his bullpen creatively. That’s how most managers are forced into a “closer by committee” or try out young pitchers with better stuff. So no, I don’t accept your premises. Someone needs to FORCE the Phillies into doing the right things by taking away their ability to do the bad ones.

  16. Phillie697

    June 17, 2013 12:46 PM

    @Pencilfish,

    There are studies that suggest that pitching might be more important than hitting to winning CHAMPIONSHIPS, but none that suggest that pitching is more important than hitting to winning games. It’s just about scoring more runs than the other team, whether it be from limiting their run production or increasing yours.

    Case in point, those same pitchers you advocate us keeping, which amounts to our #1-4 starters and a closer, is no closer to getting us anywhere to a playoff spot. If pitching is so important to winning, why aren’t we winning? Evidence belies your conclusion.

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