Sowing and Reaping: Huston Street, Jonathan Papelbon and the downside of certainty

The human brain is a war zone, the frontal lobe its perpetual battlefield. The ferocious internal conflicts that define us as a species rage within. The trajectory of our lives, and, by extension, our collective existence, is shaped by the processes it regulates: decision making, problem solving, behavioral control. History is an infinite set of consequences derived from a finite set of choices that multiplies exponentially. Do I leave the familiarity of the motherland for the hope of a better tomorrow? Do I lie, cheat, and steal, or do I strive for the better award that they tell me awaits? Do I annex Texas, withdraw to Prussia, shoot the crown prince? Do I smoke this cigarette, eat this Big Mac, purchase this television, offer this mortgage?.

Do I sign this baseball player who pitches one inning every other day to a four-year, $50.000058 million contract?

Social scientists say that the ability to delay gratification is a significant predictor of the success of a human being's endeavors. The choices one encounters when running a baseball organization are a bit more complex than deciding between one marshmallow now and four marshmallows later. Life guarantees no marshmallows. Identifying the wisest choice requires us to first identify our options, which requires us to accurately measure risk, and project physical performance, and predict the choices of other humans whose thought processes we do not control (and who sometimes struggle to do so themselves). 

The characteristic that has most defined the Phillies with Ruben Amaro Jr. as general manager is an aversion to uncertainty in the free agent and trade markets. They identify their most pressing needs, and the players who offer the most immediate utility in filling those needs, and they acquire those players. I would argue that the characteristic predates Amaro, that you see the evidence in Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton and Geoff Jenkins and even the hiring of Amaro himself. But that is another conversation for another day. 

For now, let's look at the result of this philosophy, which you can find in table form at the top of this blog post. 

At the dawn of the 2011 offseason, both the Padres and the Phillies had a vacant closer role to fill. 

On Dec. 7, the Padres acquired closer Huston Street from the Colorado Rockies in exchange for Nick Schmidt, a 25-year-old starter who had yet to reach Double-A after being drafted with the No. 23 overall pick in the 2007 draft. The 28-year-old Street had spent the previous seven seasons as one of the top closers in the game, with a 3.11 ERA (143 ERA+), 9.1 K/9, 2.3 BB/9 and 0.8 HR/9 while saving 178 games. In three years in Colorado, he had converted 64 of 75 save opportunities, but he spent time on the disabled list in August of 2011 with triceps soreness and was owed $7.5 million in 2012, $7 million of which would be paid by the Padres, with a $9 million mutual option for 2013.

One month before the Padres acquired Street, the Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million contract. The 31-year-old right-hander had spent the previous seven seasons as one of the top closers in the game, with a 2.33 ERA (197 ERA+), 10.7 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9 while saving 219 games. In his last three years in Boston, Papelbon converted 106 of 120 save opportunities.

In three years with the Padres, Street has converted 80 of 83 save opportunities with a 2.03 ERA (174 ERA+), 8.9 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 and 1.2 HR/9. In return, the Padres paid him $18.7 million.

In three years with the Phillies, Papelbon has converted 89 of 102 save opportunities, with a 2.34 ERA (165 ERA+), 9.7 K/9, 2.0 BB/9 and 0.7 HR/9. In return, the Phillies paid him $31.8 million.

Street’s contract, a two-year extension signed after his first year with the Padres, guarantees him $2.8 million for the rest of this season, with a $7 million team option for 2015.

Papelbon’s contract guarantees him $18.2 million through the end of next year, and, potentially, $13 million in 2016, if an option vests.

Three years after the Padres and Phillies acquired their new closers, they find themselves in similar situations. The Phillies are 196-224 since that day. The Padres are 193-227. Both are in desperate need of a new wave of talent to provide a foundation for the future. 

Last night, according to Fox Sports, the Padres traded their to the Angels along with 2013 sixth-round draft choice Trevor got to the Angels in exchange for the Angels’ top prospect, Triple-A second baseman Taylor Lindsey, promising Double-A relief prospect R.J. Alvarez, a 23-year-old with a 0.33 ERA, 12.7 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 and 0.0 HR/9 in 21 appearances, and a well-regarded 20-year-old shortstop prospect named Jose Rondon, who is hitting .327/.362/.418 in 324 appearances in the California League. 

Meanwhile, the Phillies continue to work the phones, their list of potential places to trade their closers now one team shorter. They have been exploring the possibility of dealing Papelbon for the last year, with little indication that they will be able to land even one of the type of players that the Padres received in exchange for Street. If anything at all. 

Get the full High Cheese experience at