Phillies take risk with Papelbon

The Phillies have reportedly agreed on a four-year deal with former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon. (AP)

Any contract is a risk, particularly one for a player who pitches in the bullpen, where the workload is unpredictable and the decline phase tends to happen fast.

It appears as if the Phillies have chosen Jonathan Papelbon as the safer play than Ryan Madson, at least according to a source who said the two sides have agreed on a four-year contract worth about $12.5 million per season.

Madson and the Phillies had discussed a four-year deal that included a fifth-year vesting option. Whether they ever reached a verbal handshake depends on who you listen to, or on what your definition of a verbal handshake is. Folks with knowledge of Madson's thought process contend he thought a deal was in place and only needed to be signed off on by club president David Montgomery. Yesterday, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. indicated that the club never reached a deal with Madson and long-time agent Scott Boras, calling reports to the contrary "unequivocally false."

Whether the disconnect was a result of a miscommunication or a change of heart or hardball negotiating tactics, the question now is whether the Phillies made the correct decision.

The Phillies will surely tout Papelbon's track record as a closer, where he converted 88 percent of his saves in five full seasons as Boston's primary ninth-inning option. 

Madson has spent most of his career as a set-up man. But last season, his first as a full-time closer, he converted 32-of-34 saves with a 2.37 ERA, 9.2 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9.


Do you agree with the Papelbon signing?

Madson has spent most of his career as a set-up man. But last season, his first as a full-time closer, he converted 32-of-34 saves with a 2.37 ERA, 9.2 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9. 

Over the three and five years, the two pitchers' averages are similar:

Player ERA IP/Yr K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Papelbon in 2011 2.94 64.1 12.2 1.4 0.4
Madson in 2011 2.37 60.2 9.2 2.4 0.3
Papelbon 2009-11 2.89 66 10.8 2.8 0.7
Madson 2009-11 2.78 64 9.6 2.4 0.6
Papelbon 2007-11 2.59 65 11.0 2.3 0.7
Madson 2007-11 2.89 66 8.6 2.6 0.7

Save totals aside, the big difference between the two pitchers is their pitching style. Papelbon relies heavily on his mid-90's fastball, off-setting it with a splitter that he throws roughly a quarter of the time. Madson's velocity is a couple of ticks below Papelbon's, but he also makes good use of his change-up, which is regarded as one of the best in the game. Madson has also incorporated a cutter into his repetoire. 

While both pitchers strike out an impressive number of batters, Madson couples his swing-and-miss ability with a good groundball rate. Papelbon, on the other hand, is a fly-ball pitcher. Below are their groundball, extra base hit, line drive and infield fly ball rates: 

Papelbon in 2011 .60 5.9 30 19 26
Madson in 2011 .98 3.3 15 17 21
Papelbon 2009-11 .52 6.2 32 20 19
Madson 2009-11 .95 4.9 23 18 15
Papelbon 2007-11 .58 5.8 31 20 19
Madson 2007-11 .89 7.0 29 20 13

Madson gives up fewer fly balls, fewer extra base hits, and fewer line drives. Compare all the numbers outside of saves, and you can argue that Madson has been the better pitcher over the last three seasons. Both players will be 31 next year. Papelbon will be 34 when his deal expires. Madson would have been 34 or 35, depending on whether the option kicked in.

If everything I've heard about the Papelbon deal and the proposed Madson deal, the big question is whether that potential fifth year of Madson ends up being worth an extra million per year in salary plus the first-round draft pick the Phillies will have to surrender to the Red Sox. Of course, the first round picks could end up canceling out if Madson signs with one of the 15 teams whose first round pick is not protected by the CBA (assuming that the rules that governed last offseason remain in place for this offseason once the players and owners reach agreement on a new deal). But the Phillies could also end up with a second round picks as they did last season when Type A free agent Jayson Werth signed with the Nationals, who had one of the top 15 picks in the first round and thus were protected from forfeiting it to the Phillies.

Personally, I thought Madson was the safer play. His ability to get groundballs combined with his command of the change-up, a pitch that Trevor Hoffman threw for a long, long time, increase the likelihood of him aging more gracefully than Papelbon, who already gives up a lot of fly balls. As long as Papelbon keeps throwing heat, the Phillies will feel comfortable. But if his velocity starts to dive in year three or four. . .

Anyway, it's an audacious move by the Phillies to both set the market price at closer and go with Papelbon over Madson at such length and money.

Time will tell.