The Detroit Tigers acquired a reliever Monday morning, and it was not Jonathan Papelbon. For weeks, those two entities were linked because of convenience: The Tigers were an elite team lacking a reputable closer and Papelbon was an elite closer on a non-contending team.
Instead, Detroit acquired Jose Veras from Houston and will slot him alongside Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly and Bruce Rondon in their bullpen. Benoit is the closer, but if he fails, there are options to replace him. A trade for Papelbon would have made him the defacto closer, and an expensive one at that.
One number says Papelbon is still elite; his 2.21 ERA is his lowest since 2009. But he has saved 20 of 25 opportunities, which would be the lowest conversion rate of his career. He is striking out 8.0 batters per nine innings, which pales in comparison to his career 10.8 rate. His average fastball velocity is 93.03 m.p.h. It was 95.76 m.p.h. in 2011.
Scouts who have recently watched Papelbon are unequivocal in their assessments. They were not recommending him for their teams. Even those within the Phillies organization see decline in the 32-year-old pitcher.
"It's not the same," one Phillies official said.
And so here are the Phillies, a team decidedly in transition, stuck with yet another albatross. He is mad. "I would like to stay here," he told MLB.com before saying he would not. "But if I'm going to have to put up with this year after year, then no, I don't want to be here. Why would you? Why would anybody?"
Papelbon has no choice. The Phillies signed him to the richest contract for a reliever in baseball history. Other teams, more cognizant of a closer's true value, recognize that folly. He heads a bullpen that owns a 4.14 ERA since his arrival. Papelbon is due at least $30 million from now until the end of 2015. It could be more because of a vesting option for 2016.
Good luck trading that.
Teams are well aware of Papelbon's surly clubhouse disposition. It was kept a secret by Boston for years, but his reputation is fully understood throughout baseball. The Phillies, a team that prides itself on its character evaluation of free agents, deemed Papelbon's personality as secondary to his talent.
So what happens when the talent wanes?
"It's going to take, in my opinion, a lot," said Papelbon, when asked how the Phillies can recover. "And in my opinion, I think it's going to have to be something very similar to what the Red Sox went through a couple years ago. From top to bottom."
The Red Sox, of course, changed their manager and general manager. Most of the roster was jettisoned. That included Papelbon, whom Boston shrewdly decided was someone else's problem.
"I definitely didn't come here for this," Papelbon said.
No, neither did the Phillies. And they are beginning to regret it.
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