Phillies add Hernandez; should they keep Papelbon?
Jonathan Papelbon had a 2.92 ERA in 2013, a lower mark than he had in 2010 or 2011. (USA Today Images)
Few opinions in this city are as close to unanimous as "the Phillies need to trade Jonathan Papelbon."
But the more you examine this 2014 Phillies roster and the overall offseason landscape, the more confusing such a move would look.
Jim Salisbury reported Wednesday that the Phillies are "selling the [crap] out of" Papelbon and would be willing to pay part of his salary to move him. Salisbury points out that the Phils approached the Indians about a deal but Cleveland wasn't interested.
The question here is: What's the point of even trading Papelbon if you'll have to pay part of his salary and then go sign a free-agent closer?
Is it possible to save money?
Papelbon is owed $26 million over the next two seasons. If the Phillies pick up, say, $6 million in each season, and also want a solid closer like Grant Balfour, Fernando Rodney or Joaquin Benoit, they'd end up committing the same amount of money to the closer position. All three of those guys are in line for two- or three-year deals worth $8 million to $10 million annually.
Unless the plan is to just go completely cheap on the bullpen and ride with the young guys -- which sounds good in theory but would likely be an abject disaster and would go against all the closer principles Ruben Amaro Jr. cited after signing Papelbon -- you're not going to save money on a trade. Amaro said Wednesday on "Philly Sports Talk" that "the best way for us to win is with a top-notch closer."
If the Phils trade Papelbon and don't sign another pricey closer, they could reallocate that money to the rotation. But ... all signs this offseason have indicated the Phillies are more interested in mid-tier starters like Bronson Arroyo, Scott Feldman and Ryan Vogelsong than they are in actual difference-makers like Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez.
Papelbon's decline was overstated
Yes, Papelbon had the lowest strikeout rate of his career in 2013. Yes, his velocity decreased to a career-low average of 92.0 mph.
But while the majority claims he's in decline, his most important stats didn't show that.
Papelbon had a 2.92 ERA in 2013, a lower mark than he had in 2010 or 2011. His WHIP (1.135) was lower than it was in 2009 or 2010. Everyone wants to talk about the strikeout rate, but his walk rate (1.6 per nine) was the third-best of his career.
And it's not like Papelbon simply got lucky. His FIP -- which removes team defense from the equation and measures a pitcher on the ERA scale using the controllable elements of strikeouts, walks and homers allowed -- was 3.05. That ranked 15th among all NL relievers. Not what you want from the highest-paid closer in the game, but still quite productive.
Papelbon was worth 1.0 WAR this past season. The other 20 relievers used by the Phillies combined for minus-1.2 WAR. That should tell you all you need to know about the fragility of this 'pen. The Phillies have made low-risk additions in Brad Lincoln and Shawn Camp but haven't come close to substantially improving the relief corps.
Papelbon's attitude issues were well-documented before Amaro signed him to a four-year deal. It's not like the Phillies went into this marriage blindly.
And however much Papelbon's personality affects the clubhouse, his absence at the back-end of the bullpen would impact the team's record more in 2014. And based on the signings these last six months of Chase Utley, Marlon Byrd and Carlos Ruiz, the Phillies care about their 2014 record.
The one caveat
The obvious exception to all of this is that if a team does pony up a legit prospect to acquire Papelbon, the Phillies should seize the opportunity. Because then the Phils would still be spending close to $13 million at closer assuming they eat money and also sign Balfour/Benoit/Rodney, but they'd also have one more prospect.
But no team was willing to take on Papelbon's deal at the trade deadline, and with Balfour, Rodney, Benoit, John Axford and Chris Perez available in free agency, there don't figure to be many teams now lining up to part with young talent to acquire the Phillies' closer.
Barring that unlikely trade, the Phils will probably have to keep Papelbon. And, moody as he may be, the 2014 team will likely be better off for it.