The fatalists among us figured this was the way it was always going to end. The Phillies’ signing of Jonathan Papelbon in the waning months of 2011 – and, as I’ll never forget to remind everyone, a single week before a rule change would have kept the club from forfeiting their draft pick to do so – was going to end in one of two ways: the club would either win a World Series with Pap on the roster, or he’d become dead weight.
Actual, on-field performance barely matters here. That Papelbon is pitching well only means that he appears palatable to other teams, worth the cost of a marginal prospect or two and a heavily discounted assumption of contract. The Phillies did not claim their second World Series title since the turn of the milennium, and so this is where we stand.
To his credit, Papelbon has pitched well as a member of the Phillies. Independent of all other things, his 169 innings of 2.34 ERA, 9.7 K/9 (4.79 K/BB) and, yes, even his 89 saves are all good. He has not allowed a home run all year and his 1.21 ERA/309 ERA+ are the second-best marks of his career. He’s a nice pitcher, and that hasn’t changed, but even with all of the pretty numbers, there’s an inescapable reality: he has no value to the Phillies.
The club is in the midst of paying Papelbon $13 million for his troubles this season, same as he was paid the year before and will be paid come the next and, with probability, the year after. That sort of money doesn’t get paid to relievers anymore, especially not those a short jaunt from their 34th birthday not named Mariano Rivera. Hell, even the most Craig Kimbrel will make on his new extension is $13 million, and that’s for ages 29-30 as an already far superior pitcher. The only deal signed after Papelbon’s worth more annually was Rafael Soriano‘s pact with the Nationals, and even that is just a two-year deal with a club option, unlike Papelbon’s fifth-year vester.
The Dodgers were recently linked to Papelbon by Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles, a “surprise-but-not-really” bit of news. The Dodgers could probably use Papelbon because, as stated before, he’s still a good pitcher and money is no object to Wall St. West. Problem here is that, even though the Phillies possess the commodity and L.A. is known for its open checkbook, the Phils have no leverage. The Dodgers hold the trump card: knowing both the Phillies desperately want to move Papelbon and the suitor market is relatively bare. With no competition, why pay a premium?
In the long view, this is just the first trade asset obstacle facing Ruben Amaro, or whoever happens to be running the Phillies’ front office next year and on down the line. What’s yet to come is a series of older and aging players with eight-figure salaries by their names on the ledger – Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins – and a few more with high sevens – Carlos Ruiz, Marlon Byrd – whose value to a non-contender is suspect. It’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, the Phillies don’t land a single top 50 prospect in their entire haul in trades through August. It’s certainly going to be the case if both Lee and Hamels stay put.
It’s entirely possible that there is no way Ruben Amaro comes out of this deadline looking like a winner. He’s being tasked with finding a way to move cumbersome contracts – of his own creation – at rates that’d make your local Costco product manager’s head spin. If he is able to move a piece or two for something that isn’t Tyson Gillies, it may just be the payday that coincides with rent or mortgage bills: you’ll hold your earnings for a second, but only end up giving it away to balance what’s come due.