Jonathan Papelbon has struck out just 8.0 batters per nine innings this season after averaging 11.2 from 2007-12. (USA Today Images)
With as many things that have gone wrong for the Phillies this season, Jonathan Papelbon’s disconcerting decline might be the worst. It comes at a crucial time for the Phils, who now probably won’t be able to acquire a piece for the future for their high-priced closer.
Papelbon’s 2013 numbers appear very solid -- 2.21 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, .209 opponents’ average. But he’s blown five saves and has lost several miles per hour on his fastball, an ominous sign for a late-inning reliever in his age-32 season.
In 2011, his final year with the Red Sox, Papelbon’s fastball averaged between 94.8 and 95.3 mph, according to PITCH/FX data. His splitter was between 89 and 90.
His fastball this season is down to 92.2 mph, and over the weekend he was consistent at 90 and 91. Huge, huge difference. Only eight percent of all pitchers -- 29 total -- have averaged 95 mph on their fastball this season. But 72 percent of all pitchers have averaged 90. Papelbon’s pitch is more common and easier to pick up, helping explain why his strikeout-per-nine rate is down to 8.0 from 11.2 the previous six seasons.
In May and June many looked to Detroit as Papelbon’s eventual destination. With the best rotation in baseball and the scariest offense in the American League, all the Tigers were lacking was an elite closer at the back-end. Jose Valverde tried and failed and a bullpen-by-committee approach wasn’t seen as an appealing option for a World Series favorite that didn’t want to waste another prime year in the careers of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.
But while the connection was easy, Detroit was never truly enamored by Papelbon. The Tigers filled their bullpen hole Monday by trading for Astros closer Jose Veras, who adds another strong right-handed arm to a 'pen that has been led lately by Joaquin Benoit (0.53 ERA, eight saves since June 7).
So that removes one of the top rumored suitors. Another one, the Red Sox, have already traded for a reliever in Matt Thornton and have been fine in the ninth since inserting the incredibly underrated Koji Uehara into the role. Boston is still looking to add a reliever, but is also heavily involved in the Jake Peavy sweepstakes, according to Yahoo! Sports, which could take up a lot of GM Ben Cherington’s attention.
Further complicating the situation for the Phillies is the availability of Padres relief ace Luke Gregerson and the Rangers’ reported willingness to move closer Joe Nathan, even as Texas contends for a playoff spot. The Rangers, according to two media reports, are willing to trade Nathan for a bat because of their bullpen depth.
Nathan is a more attractive piece than Papelbon because he’s owed just $2.33 million the rest of the year and has a 2014 option at $9 million. Investing in Papelbon means $4.33 million more for 2013 plus $26 million in 2014 and 2015, and then a $13 million vesting option for 2016. From a financial standpoint it’s a no-contest.
It appears the Phillies will be stuck with Papelbon, who is still a very good reliever and one of the best closer options in the game, but who has a borderline untradeable contract that is only becoming more so as his peripherals erode. What team is going to take on Papelbon’s contract and give up an impact player? If the Phillies do trade him, it’s almost certainly going to be one or the other -- rid yourself of the financial obligation, or pick up a lot of the money to take on talent.
It’s not an ideal situation for Ruben Amaro Jr. to be in, but this is what happens when you hand out the largest closer contract in history to a guy who’s thrown thousands of max-effort pitches in high-pressure situations.
Trading Papelbon for a young difference-maker once looked like a plan for the future. Now it looks like a pipe dream.