Question the length, not the money

The Phillies gave former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon a four-year contract. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

MILWAUKEE — Baseball's general managers convene in this charming Midwest city beginning Monday and Ruben Amaro Jr. will walk into the Pfister Hotel as the only one in the room boasting a substantial prize early in this winter's free agency period.

The Phillies struck early, setting the market with a four-year $50 million deal for Jonathan Papelbon, and that is Amaro's style. Some will like his shrewdness. Others will question the economics. But the Phillies probably didn't do much harm to the bottom line by pouncing on Papelbon.

Amaro made his intention clear: He wanted a veteran closer. The value in that position can be (and has been) debated. To attain one of the top closers on the market, the GM was likely told he must extend an offer of at least four years. The money? That's almost meaningless at this point.

One of the questions Amaro must answer is, "What effect does this deal have on the rest of his wish list?" His response will probably sound something like, "That remains to be seen." It's a good smoke screen.

Amaro has not given a hint of what his mandated budget for 2012 is, but that is moot. The Phillies have money. They have never been more popular in Philadelphia. By the end of the 2012 season, they will have sold out 285 straight regular-season games. And they are raising ticket prices for some seats.

They will spend said money until they deem necessary and it's hard to see finances standing in the way of any reasonable deal this winter. If they go over the luxury tax limit, so be it. That's the reality of a franchise that spends more than any other National League club. They can overwhelm the best closer on the market with the largest contract ever awarded to a reliever. Is it prudent? Time will decide. No one will call the philosophy of the Yankee dynasty of the late 90s/early 2000s as fiscally conservative. Are the Phillies the Yankees? Not quite. But why not spend the money when it's there?

Brad Lidge earned $12.5 million per season as sometimes closer from 2009-11. Papelbon will earn the same. This is a deal made for the next two years and not the two years after that. We've said that quite often about Amaro's trades in recent years and eventually those moves catch up. (Maybe.) Then again, the stated goal for 2012 is to win a World Series. Even after Lidge's three mostly ineffective seasons, there is still sentiment to bring him back as a middle reliever because he recorded a few outs late in 2011 and dropped to his knees one October night three years ago. If Papelbon is on the mound to clinch a championship, the contract is forever viewed favorable no matter what.

The risk is in the length, and the most criticism should be for that. The Phillies were negotiating a four-year deal with Ryan Madson and when they discovered Papelbon would cost only $6 million more (plus possibly a draft pick, but maybe not), they went with track record over familiarity.

Still, the fact that the Phillies were talking about four-year deals with two relievers is remarkable. Firstly, they've never guaranteed that much to a reliever in the team's history. Heck, only one pitcher — Cliff Lee — has the distinction of a contract of more than three years.

Secondly, only 10 relievers have signed deals of four years or more in the last decade. And history shows that guaranteeing that kind of commitment to the game's most volatile position usually does not result in the expected output.

Here, in reverse chronological order, are the 10 instances:

Francisco Cordero — 4 years, $46 million with CIN (2008-11, age 33-36)
This is one of the few examples in which spending frivolously on a closer did not backfire. Then again, Cincinnati failed to win a postseason game in the duration of Cordero's contract, but it's hard to argue he was at fault. He posted a 2.96 ERA and 141 ERA+ while averaging 70 innings per season.

Joe Nathan — 4 years, $47 million with MIN (2008-11, age 33-36)
He was an elite closer at the start of this contract extension. A 1.33 ERA and 39 saves in 2008 and a 2.10 ERA and 47 saves in 2009. Then Tommy John surgery sidelined him for the entire 2010 season and a chunk of 2011. Even in 2009, at his best, he blew a save in Game 2 of the American League division series against the Yankees, who swept.

Scott Linebrink — 4 years, $19 million with CWS (2008-11, age 31-34)
He finished out the deal in Atlanta as a mop-up man last season. Needing to simply rid themselves of his salary, the White Sox dealt him to the Braves for a double-A pitcher. With Chicago as a setup man, he posted a 4.28 ERA in three seasons and never pitched more than 57 1/3 innings in a season after averaging 80 innings per season from 2003-07.

Justin Speier — 4 years, $18 million with LAA (2007-10, age 33-36)
Spent the final season of his contract out of professional baseball. Lived up to the deal in the first year with a 2.88 ERA and 36 hits in 50 innings but it ballooned to over 5.00 in 2008 and 2009. In August 2009, the Angels released Speier and ate the rest of his contract.

B.J. Ryan — 5 years, $47 million with TOR (2006-10, age 30-34)
The example used for the perils of a large deal to a reliever. Ryan was stellar in his first year, posting one of the best seasons for a closer ever. Then he pitched five games in 2007, allowed seven runs, and needed Tommy John surgery in May. He saved 32 games in 2008 to a 2.95 ERA but experienced a drop in velocity and was never fully healthy. He lost the closer's job in 2009, was released with $15 million left on his contract, and never pitched again.

Billy Wagner — 4 years, $43 million with NYM (2006-09, age 34-37)
The Phillies were in on Wagner, but then-general manager Pat Gillick stated he would not go beyond three years for a closer. Wagner had a 2.40 ERA for the Mets in the first three seasons of the deal but needed Tommy John surgery at the end of 2008. He pitched in 15 2/3 innings in 2009 — 13 2/3 of them with Boston.

Steve Karsay — 4 years, $22.25 million with NYY (2002-05, age 30-33)
He had a history of injury problems and one season into the four-year deal, he required shoulder surgery that kept him out all of 2003. He was never the same after that, pitching only 6 2/3 innings in 2004 and 21 2/3 innings (with a 7.06 ERA) in 2005.

Jason Isringhausen — 4 years, $27 million with STL (2002-05, age 29-32)
He stayed healthy for the most part, and that was key. Isringhausen saved 140 games in the four seasons while posting a 2.50 ERA. His best season came in 2004 when St. Louis won the National League. He averaged almost a strikeout per inning. It went mostly downhill after this deal, once he started to age.

Matt Mantei — 4 years, $22 million with ARI (2001-04, age 27-30)
This was a weird one, especially since Mantei battled an arm injury in 2000. The Diamondbacks apparently didn't care and still signed him to a four-year deal. He blew out his arm in April 2001 and underwent Tommy John surgery. In all, he pitched just 99 1/3 innings during the span of the contract.

Mariano Rivera — 4 years, $40 million with NYY (2001-04, age 31-34)
The greatest ever.


If Papelbon pitches 268 2/3 innings — his total from the previous four seasons in Boston — over the length of the contract, the Phillies will pay him $62,034.74 per out. (That's quite an assumption given that Papelbon will be older.) This is what will cause some to wonder if the money could be better spent on a position that will have a greater effect on the outcome of the next 648 or so Phillies games. Others will say those outs for which Papelbon is paid handsomely are the toughest of the game.

At its core, this deal cuts between the whole closer debate; something argued by more than a few baseball lifers. Did the Phillies overpay for Jonathan Papelbon? Probably. Is it too early to rush to judgment on the deal? Of course. Just about every contract signed this winter will come with the label "overpaid."

For now, think about this: The Phillies can spend lavishly on a top free agent and it's only the beginning of their winter.

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