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2013 Phillies Report Card: Jonathan Papelbon

It’s admittedly a bit tough to see Jonathan Papelbon‘s name on the roster. The man is a fine relief pitcher, and has turned in two good seasons for the Phillies.

But the elephant in the room that won’t leave until it expires is the massive burden of a contract Papelbon was signed to prior to the 2012 season.

That doesn’t even mention the draft pick forfeiture and every other bit of the old story you’re tired of hearing by now. The contract isn’t his fault – save for the $58 appendage in 2012 that looks more obnoxious by the day – but it’s an important thing to keep in mind as his season is judged: if you’re going to be paid like a top-three reliever, you’d better perform like one.

Actually, Papelbon’s fighting a losing battle regardless. Consider this piece from David Murphy from earlier in the week; Papelbon’s being paid an exorbitant amount as his skills begin to diminish and other, more affordable options elsewhere begin to surpass him, not that that’s under his control. What was under his control in 2013 was handled pretty steadily: 57 strikeouts against 10 unintentional walks, six home runs allowed in 61.2 IP. But despite how good some of his numbers look, there are others that raise some concern.

Papelbon’s strikeout rate fell for the second consecutive year; the SLG and OPS he allowed were the second-highest of his career-to-date, and the .247 AVG was the highest of any season besides his rookie stint; he blew seven saves; his FIP and SIERA, to name two, also continued to rise. It was a good, not great, relief season, not commensurate with his salary.

In early September, the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner, in a piece about the overall efficacy of established “closers” and their place in the continuously evolving state of roster management, referred to Papelbon as a “one-inning hood ornament,” and that’s the most accurately brief description you could place on his situation. Papelbon is being paid as if he were the gotta-have-him final piece of a contender that could afford to drop beaucoup bucks on a frill. That was the case in 2009-11, not any longer. Instead, Papelbon is a good player on the wrong side of 30, whose age has begun and will continue to erode his ability as his presence obstructs the placement of a younger, cheaper pitcher who, one day, could have taken his place and allowed for potential spending in areas of greater need.

See, I started out by telling myself I would only focus on the stuff under Papelbon’s control, not the circumstances of the environment around him. I guess the hard truth is that I just can’t do that, or, at least, I can only do it just long enough to award his 2013 season a B.

Bill Michael Eric Ryan
B C- B+ B-