Phillies Interested in Trading Jonathan Papelbon
Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports tweeted the news last night:
Sources: #Phillies trying to trade Papelbon.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 6, 2013
Such a trade would be for a modicum of salary relief more than anything else, as Papelbon has gotten the results GM Ruben Amaro expected when he signed him to a four-year, $50 million contract after the 2011 season. In two seasons with the Phillies, Papelbon has posted an aggregate 2.67 ERA in 131.2 innings with 149 strikeouts and 27 unintentional walks. He is still owed $13 million in both the 2014 and 2015 seasons, and his 2016 option vests at an additional $13 million if he finishes 55 games in 2015, or combines for 100 games finished in 2014-15.
As a team still quite far away from being legitimately considered a contender, though, the Phillies have little use for Papelbon and even they have identified some depressing trends with the right-hander. Papelbon’s strikeout rate plummeted to a career-low 22 percent last season, following two seasons in which he finished at 34 and 32 percent. His average fastball velocity declined from 95 MPH in 2011 to 93.8 in 2012 and 92.0 last season. He just turned 33 years old, so that velocity is unlikely to be recovered. One other negative, per Jon Heyman of CBS Sports — apparently, Papelbon isn’t well-liked in the Phillies’ clubhouse:
not surprised phillies trying to trade papelbon, as @Ken_Rosenthal said. know folks there who want him out of clubhouse.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) December 6, 2013
When we examined Papelbon in the summer, we noticed he was having trouble generating swings and misses on pitches up in the strike zone, but it was hard to pick out of the noise created by fluky BABIP luck:
Papelbon is enjoying a .227 BABIP overall, so it is difficult to observe the ill effects of his declining fastball velocity as his luck on balls in play is creating noise. For example, on those fastballs up in the zone, hitters overall have posted a .139 wOBA against him this year compared to .189 last year. However, hitters have swung and missed at those pitches ten percent less often.
A majority of Papelbon’s success this year is illusory. When his BABIP returns to his career average .274, or closer to .300 where it has been in recent years, he will be increasingly unreliable in high-leverage situations unless he is able to recapture most or all of his ability to miss bats. More balls in play plus a higher rate of contact means more hits and consequently more runs.
Papelbon has no-trade protection which allows him to select 12 teams to which he will approve a trade. The list of 12 teams is not known, other than that the Red Sox are on there, but their closer needs are currently met with Koji Uehara. That said, what could the Phillies get in return for Papelbon?
On Monday, the Orioles traded closer Jim Johnson to the Athletics for former prospect infielder Jemile Weeks. Johnson, now 30 years old, is expected to approach a salary close to $10 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility. After a solid showing in 2011, Weeks struggled to adjust in 2012 and spent nearly the entire 2013 season with Triple-A Sacramento. Weeks turns 27 years old next month.
In December 2011, the Athletics traded then-closer Andrew Bailey along with platoon outfielder Ryan Sweeney to the Red Sox for two non-prospect low-level Minor Leaguers (Miles Head and Raul Alcantara) and outfielder Josh Reddick. Reddick struggled to find playing time with the Red Sox but broke out for a 5 WAR season in his first season with the Athletics in 2012.
Those two deals represent the upper end of the possible returns, however, because free agency is still flush with relief options — Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, John Axford, Fernando Rodney, Chris Perez, and Jose Veras are still available. Eating $15-20 million of Papelbon’s remaining salary would make him very attractive to teams still in need of a quality closer, especially if the Phillies don’t burst into negotiations demanding a top-ten prospect. The Phillies could wait for a few more closers to fall off the board and take advantage of scarcity among teams reticent to take a gamble on the likes of Perez and Veras.
Barring an unforeseen blockbuster move or two, the Phillies aren’t going to be very competitive in 2014. As such, Papelbon is simply dead weight. Shedding even $5 million of his remaining salary and bringing in a couple of Minor Leaguers who have the potential, however small, to contribute positively to future teams is a worthwhile endeavor and puts the Phillies in a better position to compete in 2015 and beyond.