Trading Papelbon would solve little for Phillies

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Trading Papelbon would solve little for Phillies

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.

Attitude issues
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.

Best of MLB: Cardinals erupt for 9 runs during 8th inning of comeback

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Best of MLB: Cardinals erupt for 9 runs during 8th inning of comeback

CHICAGO -- Paul DeJong hit a tiebreaking two-run double in St. Louis' nine-run eighth inning, and the Cardinals cooled off the Chicago Cubs with an 11-4 victory on Friday.

Chicago carried a 3-2 lead into the eighth, looking for its seventh consecutive win. But St. Louis sent 14 batters to the plate in its highest-scoring inning of the season, taking advantage of a combined six walks by three relievers while improving to 4-4 since the All-Star break.

Carl Edwards Jr. (3-2) was pulled after the first three batters reached. Hector Rondon then walked Jedd Gyorko, tying it at 3, and DeJong followed with a drive into the ivy in right-center for a ground-rule double. The Cardinals were off and running from there.

Matt Bowman (2-3) got the final out of the seventh for the win.

The Cubs played without third baseman Kris Bryant, who sprained his left little finger on a headfirst slide on Wednesday. X-rays were negative, but Bryant is experiencing soreness and there is some concern about gripping a bat (see full recap).

Andrus' hustle gives Rangers win in 10th inning
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Elvis Andrus homered early, and then snapped a 10th-inning tie with a two-out infield single that gave the struggling Texas Rangers a 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night.

Andrus, who homered in the first inning, hit a sharp grounder off Brad Boxberger (2-1) that forced Evan Longoria to make a diving stop. Pinch runner Delino Shields scored when the third baseman to was unable to complete the throw to first base.

Alex Claudio (2-0) pitched two innings in relief of Yu Darvish to get the win. The left-hander gave up a leadoff single to Steven Souza Jr. in the 10th, but avoided further damage by getting Adeiny Hechavarria to bunt into a double play and Mallex Smith to fly out.

Texas ended a five-game losing streak.

Rays starter Alex Cobb took a three-hitter and a 3-1 lead into the ninth, but couldn't finish off the Rangers, who erased their deficit with Joey Gallo's double and Shin-Soo Choo's 14th homer within a three-pitch span (see full recap).

Encarnacion powers Indians past former team
CLEVELAND -- Edwin Encarnacion homered and drove in four runs against his former team, and the Cleveland Indians broke open a close game with an eight-run seventh inning to rout the Toronto Blue Jays 13-3 on Friday night.

Encarnacion, who played the last six seasons with Toronto before signing a three-year, $60 million contract with Cleveland in January, hit a leadoff home run in the second, broke a 3-all tie in the fifth with a two-run double and added an RBI single in the seventh.

Encarnacion was 3 for 4 with a walk and nearly added to his total later in the seventh, but center fielder Kevin Pillar tracked down his fly ball on the warning track with two runners on.

Abraham Almonte hit a three-run homer and rookie Bradley Zimmer added a two-run single in the seventh as the Indians won for just the second time in eight games (see full recap).

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

BOX SCORE

Once upon a time, Cole Hamels was a two-pitch pitcher: fastball and changeup. The changeup was so good so consistently that it didn't matter that Hamels' curveball command was often shaky. Two very good pitches were enough.

It wasn't until Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay arrived that Hamels began incorporating a fourth pitch, the cutter, and along the way, his curveball command improved substantially. Suddenly, a two-pitch lefty had a legitimate four-pitch mix and it took him to another level.

Watching Aaron Nola dominate the Brewers in Friday night's 6-1 Phillies win (see Instant Replay), Hamels' evolution came to mind. Nola allowed one run and struck out nine over seven innings, at one point whiffing eight of nine Brewers. And he did with a four-pitch mix that included 31 sinkers, 27 fastballs, 20 changeups and 18 curveballs.

It's no longer sinker-curveball only with Nola. He's now giving his opponents more to worry about in the form of additional velocity on the fastball and a changeup that is becoming a money pitch.

"Nola was outstanding. He's been working on that changeup all year and it's really one of his better pitches right now," manager Pete Mackanin said. 

With a four-seam fastball that has been maxing out at 95 mph lately, a curveball that buckles hitters from both sides of the plate, a sinker with wicked two-seam movement and a changeup that he's beginning to feel comfortable throwing to righties and lefties alike, Nola may be making his jump to the next level before our very eyes.

"No question about it," Mackanin said. "That changeup, he threw a ton of them tonight to righties and lefties. I talked to him when we took him out of the game and he was real excited about throwing the changeup not just to lefties but to right-handers as well. If he can do that with the rest of the arsenal that he has, I expect a real good performance from him every time out."

The win made Nola 7-6 with a 3.38 ERA, which essentially means he's given up three runs every eight innings. Any team will take that from a starting pitcher. 

Over his last six starts, Nola has been lights-out — 1.70 ERA, .190 opponents' batting average, 50 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings. Perhaps most impressively, he's held his opponents to a .118 batting average with runners in scoring position, second in the National League over that span to only Clayton Kershaw.

"My changeup ... I'm feeling consistent with it right now," Nola said. "It's evolved. I really didn't have much of a feel for my changeup [when I first came up]. It's a thing I worked on in spring training a lot this year, threw it in counts when I usually wouldn't. That's what spring training is for and I think it helped."

The changeup is a feel pitch and its success is usually dictated by the pitcher's arm angle and speed. If he throws it the same way he throws a fastball, that's where the deception of the slower speed comes into play. Nola has worked hard on those aspects of the pitch and it's clearly paying off.

Nola induced 15 swinging strikes on the night, six of them on changeups and five on curveballs. His strikeout numbers stand out because he was not billed as this kind of pitcher when he was drafted or was coming up through the Phillies' system. In the minor leagues, Nola struck out 7.6 batters per nine innings. In the majors, he's struck out 277 in 275 innings (9.1 per nine).

"I'm real happy about the way he's come along, especially after the elbow issues," Mackanin said. "He has increased velocity. His pitches are crisper. He's better now than before. It's really a nice jump for him to make."

Indeed it is. Perhaps Nola's ceiling is higher than No. 2 starter.