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.

Aaron Nola's best start of the season has Phillies confident he's locking in

Aaron Nola's best start of the season has Phillies confident he's locking in

BOX SCORE

When Aaron Nola pitches like he did Thursday, there aren't too many teams capable of beating him.

Nola was locked in against the Cardinals in the Phillies' 5-1 win, allowing just one run on four hits over 7 1/3 innings with a season-high eight strikeouts (see Instant Replay). His first seven innings were scoreless and his pitch count was at just 89, so he had the chance for his first-ever complete game and the Phillies' first of the season.

But Paul DeJong greeted Nola in the eighth with a solo homer, and after a one-out walk to Matt Carpenter, Nola's day was done. He left to a loud ovation from Phillies fans who have been waiting a long time to see this guy again.

"Well that's the Nola we all have come to know and love," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He was outstanding today. ... He was painting on both sides of the plate. Real good curveball. Threw a lot of good changeups. I think he got tired in that eighth inning, but it was great to see him rebound from the struggles he's been going through."

Nola had elite command of his two-seam fastball and curveball on this day. Five of his eight strikeouts were looking as he continuously froze Cardinals hitters with two-seamers that started outside and darted back over the outside corner. Everything was low in the zone. The curveball was sharp and biting with late life, and St. Louis' hitters kept swinging over top of it.

This was the Nola worth drafting in the first round. This was the Nola who can legitimately be a top-of-the-rotation arm.

"I know what I'm capable of and I know what I can do and today was me," Nola said. "I felt confident in all my pitches today and commanding all my pitches when I wanted to. It was all good in those areas.

"I always try to visualize [success]. I know what I'm capable of doing and what pitches I can command. It's just those days where you feel really good about it and you're really confident about executing to both sides of the plate."

Last year during spring training, Mackanin compared Nola's skill set to that of a pitcher he managed in 1985 in the Class A Midwest League. That pitcher was Greg Maddux. 

"I'll just say this and I probably shouldn't, but I'm just gonna say it: Aaron Nola reminds me a bit of [Maddux]," Mackanin said last February.

"He shows no fear, he's very confident in his abilities and he has the uncanny ability to locate his fastball down in the zone on both sides of the plate. And he really believes in himself."

On Thursday, Nola fit every piece of that description. And just like Nick Pivetta built confidence with his nine-strikeout performance last week against the Red Sox that carried over into a 10-K night against the Cardinals (see story), this has a chance to be a real building block for Nola.

Throwing first-pitch strikes to 18 of 24 hitters will get you a long way.

"He got ahead of almost every hitter I guarantee you, he was strike one," catcher Cameron Rupp said.  

"And when you do that, that opens up so many doors with your pitch sequence, being able to pitch and get in on guys, maybe throw a purpose pitch for a ball, maybe they swing and you're 0-2 and that opens up the outer half even bigger. He threw strikes, he pounded the zone, and when you do that, you're going to have so much success. 

"That's what he did his first year-and-a-half up here. He got away from locating his pitches and the injuries, I'm sure, didn't help, but he attacked the zone and did a great job for us. ... When you do that, the sky is the limit, and he showed that today."

Conflicting messages, real concern over usage restrictions for Pat Neshek

Conflicting messages, real concern over usage restrictions for Pat Neshek

Phillies reliever Pat Neshek is having a tremendous, All-Star season, but the restrictions on his usage have become a real concern.

Neshek, who has a 0.63 ERA and 30 scoreless appearances out of 31, induced an inning-ending double play Thursday to get the Phillies to the ninth with a two-run lead. He threw just five pitches in the 5-1 win (see Instant Replay).

But even if the Phillies didn't tack on two insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, Neshek was not going back out for a save situation in the ninth, Mackanin said.

"I asked him to go back out," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He said he would rather not, he didn't feel like he had it. 

"I would have liked to have sent him back out, obviously, because he's been so effective. However, we've got a good thing going there and if he can only pitch one inning for us, I'll take it. 

"He's been that good and I don't want to disrupt that. That's one area that I don't have to worry about. So, I did ask if he could go back out, he just thought it was better that he didn't."

Moments later, Neshek said he was not asked to go back out for the ninth.

It's the second straight day there have been conflicting messages when it comes to Neshek's availability. Wednesday night, when the Phillies blew a five-run lead and allowed runs in both the eighth and ninth innings as Neshek stayed in the bullpen, Mackanin said that Neshek had told him earlier he was unavailable. But then Neshek said that he was the one told he'd have the day off.

Whichever order of operations has actually occurred the last two games, these restrictions on Neshek's usage are affecting the Phillies late in games and they're sure to have an impact on his trade value as well.

The trade value is the more important thing here long-term because the Phillies are 25 games under .500. Neshek and Howie Kendrick are their two best trade assets, but if you're a contending team, why give up anything of substance for a half-season of Neshek if you don't even know if you can send him out two games in a row?

"He gave me the off day when I showed up," Neshek said Thursday about the middle game of the series. "I don’t know. You guys (the media) are making a big deal out of it."

Did he feel better Thursday?

"Yeah," he said. "I went out there and got the double play.

"We’ve been used a lot this week. I was kind of hoping that I might get a day today. But I understand the state of the bullpen. You have to suck it up and go out there."

Neshek has been used five times in the last seven days, so he does have a point, he has been used a lot. That's the byproduct of being your team's most reliable reliever.

At this stage, Neshek is a safe bet to be the Phillies' All-Star representative, especially because he'd serve an actual purpose in the All-Star Game as a right-handed specialist capable of retiring the best of the best.

"It could happen," he said. "There’s a couple other guys. It’s going to come down to who Joe Maddon wants for his bench. Is it going to be an extra pitcher? Is it going to be an extra hitter? They usually don’t stick with middle relief guys. Yeah, I have the numbers. But the All-Star Game is kind of a hairy thing if you’re not the star guy, if you’re not the save guy. It’s going to come down to do we need a pitcher or do we need a hitter.

"It’s really tough to make it as a middle reliever. It’s hard to get excited about anything that hasn’t happened yet."