Will Jonathan Papelbon get his wish? And will the Phillies get anything in return? The one thing Papelbon accomplished with his comments last night was to remove any doubt that the Phillies will trade him at some point this year.
While it is always dangerous to judge a player by his remarks to reporters, it doesn't get more self-centered than a guy who is in his third year in the organization essentially ridiculing his teammates for wanting to remain with the Phillies, a wish that both Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley have stated in recent weeks.
Now, maybe Rollins and Utley are simply being more tactful than a closer who has always come across as remarkably deficient in that department, but it is hard to imagine that the two Phillies who have the most invested in this organization will be pleased with the implication that said investment is a foolish one.
The problem for the Phillies is that Papelbon is not nearly as hot a commodity as he no doubt thinks that he is. At least, he is not as hot as he might have been a few years ago. And while his stuff isn't as good as it once was, his diminished stock has little to do with his actual performance.
Once upon a time, the conventional wisdom held that the ninth inning was better left to a man who had been there and done that before, particularly if that ninth inning was being played on baseball’s biggest stage.
It’s the conventional wisdom that led the Phillies to trade Michael Bourn for Brad Lidge and then give Lidge a huge contract extension. It’s the conventional wisdom that led the Phillies to sign Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million contract to replace Lidge. And, like a lot of things in baseball over the past few years, it’s the conventional wisdom that general managers have begun to reexamine.
Last year, the Red Sox won the World Series with Koji Uehara, who entered the year with 14 career saves in four big league seasons. In 2012, it was the Giants and Sergio Romo, who entered the year with next to know experience in the role, and who replaced Santiago Casilla, the Giants' saves leader during the regular season, who entered the year with 12 saves in five big league seasons. In 2011, it was the Cardinals and Jason Motte, who entered that year with three saves in three big league seasons, and who only had nine saves in that season.
That’s not to say that the ninth inning isn’t important. But the new CBA’s restrictions on amateur spending and consequences for exceeding the luxury tax threshold have forced teams to rethink the worth of a closer, both in terms of prospects and money.
In the old system, big market teams could replenish their minor league talent pool by outspending their competitors in the draft and in the international market. But prospects are worth a lot more now than they were three years ago, and pitchers who log 60 innings a season are worth a lot less.
All of which brings us to our look at the current trade market for closers. While Papelbon might be the biggest name available, and while he might have the most big game experience, and while he has pitched extremely well since signing with the Phillies, there is a very good chance that the market views him as the fourth or fifth most attractive closer available.
The Available Pieces
1. Joakim Soria, TEX: 2.93 ERA, 9.75 K/BB
2. Koji Uehara, BOS: 1.40 ERA, 9.8 K/BB
3. Huston Street, SDP: 0.90 ERA, 4.57 K/BB
4. Jonathan Papelbon, PHI: 1.39 ERA, 3.11 K/BB
5. Joaquin Benoit, SDP: 1.30 ERA, 5.57 K/BB
7. Blue Jays
The biggest factor might be the fact that Papelbon is the only pitcher of the five elite strikeout arms available that has a no-trade clause, which allows him to block deals to roughly 2/3rds of major league teams.
A second factor is the $13 million owed to him in 2015, and a $13 million option that vests with 55 games finished in 2015 or 100 games finished in 2014-14. The only other reliever in the group who is owed more than $500,000 after this season is Benoit, who is owed $9.5 million next year and has a vesting option for 2016. Papelbon also makes twice as much as the rest in 2014. Soria is at $5.5 million, Uehara at $5.0 million, Street at $7 million, and Benoit at $6 million.
There is a good chance that the Rangers decide to keep Soria for 2015, when they have an option on him for $7 million.
The Giants’ top priority is bolstering an offense that has averaged just 2.8 runs per game with a .627 OPS during the 7-20 funk they carried into yesterday. But they also could use a dependable ninth inning man, as Sergio Romo has blown four of his last 11 save opportunities with 11 strikeouts and six walks in 13 1/3 innings during that stretch.
Santiago Casilla has saved the Giants’ last two games and has a 1.08 ERA, but has a strikeout rate that is below average. San Fran will also be considering the starting pitching market. In their public comments, both Chase Utley and the Phillies have indicated some reluctance to part ways, but if it were to happen, the Giants would be an obvious landing spot. They badly need a second baseman, and they have a near-MLB-ready starter in Kyle Crick and a position prospect and Andrew Susac, one of whom a deal could be built around.
The Athletics should be looking to add another bullpen piece, although not necessarily in the ninth inning, as Sean Doolittle has converted 13 of 16 save attempts, although he has hit a bit of a rough patch over the last four games. Benoit would make a lot of sense here.
The Orioles are now in first place in the AL East with a 2.5 game lead. Their clear need is a frontline starter, although they could also use a bullpen piece. Zach Britton has converted 14 of 16 saves since mid-May.
The Dodgers definitely need a bullpen arm or two, but they are not in a position where they need to pay top price for a proven ninth inning arm, as Kenley Jansen has converted 21 of his last 22 save opportunities.
The Blue Jays have gotten good production out of Casey Janssen since his return, but he has struck out only 13 batters in 20 innings. A frontline starter is their priority.
The Royals have a closer in Greg Holland and desperately need some offense. They would make a good landing spot for Marlon Byrd.
The Brewers could use a frontline starter, but probably do not have the pieces to land one, which means their best option at fortifying for the postseason is probably to add a right-handed strikeout arm to a back-of-the-bullpen mix that has featured excellent performances from closer Francisco Rodriguez and lefties Will Smith and Zach Duke. Benoit is a potential fit here.
Late innings relievers have landed impressive hauls in the past. Even last year, Francisco Rodriguez landed an infield prospect that Baseball America had ranked fourth in the Orioles system. Two years ago, the Reds traded a pitching prospect who Baseball Prospectus ranked sixth for Jonathan Broxton. And a few years ago, Mike Adams landed Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland, a Uehara landed Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter.
But all of those deals represented the top of the market for closers that July. And Papelbon, more than likely, will not be at the top of the market. Even if Soria remains in Texas, Papelbon is still probably behind Uehara and Street.
A Papelbon/Burnett combo to the Orioles would make some sense if their no trade clauses allow it, or if they are willing to waive them, which Papelbon said that he was. Whether Burnett represents a significant enough upgrade over what the Orioles already have is debatable.
It is relatively useless at this point to try to lock each of these closers into a team, mostly because a lot will depend on how the market for frontline pitchers evolves (Price, potentially Lester and Hamels).
The Orioles and Blue Jays need to land a Game 1 or Game 2 starter if they hope to have realistic shot at advancing to the LCS. The Pirates need one, but might not be in a financial position to land one. Besides, they are suddenly in third place in the NL Central. I'd expect them to wait until right before the deadline to decide on their strategy. Only the Tigers and the Angels have closer as their top need right now.
The three most realistic teams for Papelbon are the Angels, Tigers and Orioles. If you forced me to pick right now, I'd say Street to the Tigers, Uehara to the Angels, and Papelbon to the Orioles, with Benoit going to the Brewers. This is assuming Soria stays put.