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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.