Phillies make first big free agent splash of the offseason
Pending a physical, Jonathan Papelbon will receive a four-year, $50M contract
If ever there was a team that should overspend on a closer, the Phillies are it
The market for closers just went up, which is bad news for a number of teams
Just one day after talks to re-sign incumbent closer Ryan Madson to a four-year, $44 million deal reportedly fell through, the Phillies have come to an agreement with former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon on a four-year deal reportedly worth $50 million with a low-threshold vesting option for 2016. The deal will become final if Papelbon passes his physical, which is scheduled for next week. Papelbon's contract is the largest in guaranteed total dollars ever given to a relief pitcher, breaking the mark set by B.J. Ryan's five-year, $47 million deal with the Blue Jays. Papelbon's new average annual salary of $12.5 million ties the second-highest average annual salary ever earned by a reliever. It's only a small raise over the $12 million Papelbon made this past season after taking the Red Sox to arbitration for the third straight season, but that salary was already the fifth-highest ever earned by a reliever.
One of the interesting wrinkles here is that the reliever whose $12.5 million average annual salary Papelbon just tied is former Phillies closer Brad Lidge, who made that money as part of a three-year extension that just expired. That extension, given to Lidge in July of his "perfect" season in the Phillies' championship year of 2008, covered Lidge's age-32 to -34 seasons, the same span covered by the last three guaranteed years of Papelbon's new deal. In those three seasons, Lidge posted a 4.73 ERA and saved a total of just 59 games while blowing 16 (a poor 79 percent conversion rate) and missing a total of 164 games due to injury (per Baseball Prospectus's injury history data).
That looks damning, but Phillies' general manager Ruben Amaro inherited the Lidge contract from his Hall of Fame predecessor, Pat Gillick, and in Papelbon has signed a closer with a far cleaner injury history (Lidge had two knee surgeries and an additional disabled list stay before signing his extension, Papelbon has never been under the knife or on the DL) and a more consistent and impressive track record on the mount. In fact, Papelbon's six seasons as the Red Sox closer rank among the greatest six-year runs any closer has ever had, as the following select list helps illustrate:
Worth noting from that list: Wagner was 34 in 2006. Rivera was 38 in 2008. Eckersley was 38 in 1993. Hoffman was a rock through his age-34 season, and continued to be for another six years after surgery wiped out his age-35 season. Gossage dominated through his age-33 season. Fingers, after a speed bump in his age-32 season, continued to be a star closer through age 35. Of the seven closers above, not counting Papelbon and Rodriguez, who is younger than Papelbon, only Sutter suffered an early and decisive collapse, and even he had a great season at age 32 before things started to go downhill. That's obviously a list of some of the greatest closers of all time, but Papelbon, who will be 31 in the first year of his new deal, has earned the comparison.
Now, here are Lidge's six seasons prior to the start of his three-year extension, which were good, but not on the same level as those of the men listed above:
If there's a criticism to be lobbed at the Phillies for this contract, it's not that they gave it to Papelbon, it's that they gave it to any closer. A full-season of 162 nine-inning games adds up to 1,458 innings, Papelbon has averaged 66 over those last six seasons, or 4.5 percent of the average pitching staff's workload. If you take into account hitting, it's just 2.25 percent of his team's total innings. For that, he'll take up roughly eight percent of the Phillies' payroll. Yes his innings are high-leverage, making them more valuable than average, and yes he's among the best at what he does, but there's room for criticism there.
That said, if ever there was a team that should overspend on a closer, the Phillies are it. Yes, they need a shortstop with Jimmy Rollins now a free agent, but giving Papelbon's money to the rapidly aging Rollins isn't necessarily a better investment, nor is giving two-to-three times as much to the oft-injured Jose Reyes, and those are the only two shortstops on the market whose signing Papelbon's might preclude. The Phillies are an aging team built to win now that just led the major leagues in wins this season and is coming off five straight postseason appearances. They're also a team with great starting pitching and a fading, aging offense, which means they're likely to play a lot of close games while fighting for a playoff spot, which maximizes the value of a closer.
As for the first-round draft pick the Phillies are surrendering by signing the Type-A free agent Papelbon, they could actually trade up by offering Madson, who is also a Type-A, arbitration. As evidenced by the deal the Phillies had offered Madson, he is valuable enough that the compensation pick won't kill the market for his services, as it often does for setup men and middle relievers who are saddled with the Type-A designation. The pick the Phillies surrendered to the Red Sox for Papelbon was the 31st. As long as the team that signs Madson doesn't also sign another, higher-rated Type-A free agent, the Phillies will receive a higher pick as compensation for him, along with a supplemental-round pick, so could actually be in better position for the 2012 draft after signing Papelbon than they would have been had they retained Madson and not had any compensation pick exchanges.
The knee-jerk reaction to a record-setting contract like Papelbon's is almost always negative, and any such contract is risky by its very nature, but on closer analysis, it's hard to criticize the Phillies too much for this one. Yes, they set the market for closers incredibly high, which could cause a lot of problems for other teams looking to sign lesser closers (and after Papelbon, even Rodriguez, who is also a free agent this winter, is a lesser closer), but that's not the Phillies' problem. In fact, what's bad for the other 29 teams, is good for the Phillies, and chances are that won't be the only way in which the Papelbon contract works in their favor.
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