While the Phillies continue to play through one of their longer home stands of the summer, rumors and conjecture continue to buzz around the team, sometimes acting like a gnats and other times more like a swarm of hornets. The team stands currently at 44-46, just below the .500 mark, and that includes the club’s recent winning streak, 5-2 in the month of July. At this very moment, things seem to be looking up, with Chase Utley securely back in the lineup, Ryan Howard filling his most useful role on the disabled list, and the recent production from the starting pitchers, 3.72 ERA and 3.39 FIP in their last 82.1 innings pitched. Still, the Braves hold a 7.5 game lead in the division, and the chances of winning either wild card spots dwindle every day.
With the trade deadline now only 21+ days away, almost contenders, contenders, and dreamers look for upgrades, while cellar-dwellers look to unload hefty unneeded veterans in return for young and prospective talent. Given the Phillies constant hovering around the .500 mark, and their plethora of veterans, some expect, and many hope for Phillies GM Ruben Amaro to repeat his 2012 performance and procure some talented baseball youths in exchange for crusty or highly-paid veterans.
In 2012 the Phillies moved outfielders Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence for some mid-level prospects, none of whom are currently on the big league roster, but some, like Tommy Joseph and Ethan Martin continue to develop, and could become pieces of future Phillies clubs. One acquisition from the Shane Victorino deal, Josh Lindblom, already paid some dividends in that Ruben Amaro was able to acquire Michael Young by moving Lindblom to the Rangers.
The names constantly popping up in 2013 as possible Phillies veterans on the move include Chase Utley, Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, Michael Young, and Delmon Young. Lee could provide the most in return, Utley is a free agent at season’s end and has distinct value in a possible trade, and both Youngs could bring back minor pieces in return but neither provides the Phillies with any current needed value. That leaves Jonathan Paplebon, the Phillies highly paid closer as an interesting possible trade piece.
Trades at the trade deadline and those that occur in the offseason differ in that at the deadline, a trade constitutes the only manner of acquiring a player whereas the offseason has to distinct manners of acquisition, trade and free agent signing. Especially given that the trade deadline comes more than halfway through the MLB season, who pays how much of players’ salaries can vary to fit teams’ needs, making mid-season deals more valuable to some and less so to others. Most importantly, especially when discussing Papelbon, relief pitchers often become even more overvalued than they already are, due to teams’ panic, injuries to bullpen pitchers, and the volatility involved in relief pitcher productivity.
Usually a team would find it difficult to move a 32-year-old relief pitcher who has only thrown 35.2 innings this season but will make $13 million per season through 2015 with the possibility of another year at $13 million in 2016, but despite those obstacles the Phillies closer finds himself on numerous lists of trade candidates. The Phillies don’t need Papelbon right now, he’s useful sure, but he’s overpaid, and since the classic definition of the closer’s role is to pitch in close games in which their team is winning, and the Phillies lose more than they win, trading Papelbon seems reasonable.
More importantly for the Phillies, ridding themselves of Papelbon’s contract could free up money to be used on the free agent market this offseason, since it’s a fair bet that $13 million a season can be put to better use. Another reason the Phillies should want to trade Papelbon is that aside from Utley and Lee, Papelbon could provide the next best return in a trade. Were the Phillies to acquire two mid-level or one high ceiling/low floor prospects in a deal, while simultaneously gaining salary relief, it could prove to be a win for the club. Finally, Papelbon’s performance has declined recently, especially the velocity on his fastball, which for relief pitchers has a distinct correlation to strikeout percentage, which for Papelbon has also dipped. More on this can be read in Paul Swydan’s well written piece on the subject.
Smart clubs will see the declining strikeout rate, expense and lengthy contract, and age as reasons to pass on Papelbon, but no doubt, some team in dire need of a “proven” closer who has “been there” before, and who provides “playoff experience” will make a move for the veteran righty. It may not come today, tomorrow, or even next week, but come July 31st, a team like the Tigers, Red Sox, or Diamondbacks will succumb to their better judgment, call Ruben Amaro, and make a deal for the Phillies closer, all the while praying that the prospect, international signing money, or young but seemingly average starting pitcher they give up in return won’t become the next Patrick Corbin.
All of this depends on whether Amaro is willing to move Papelbon. Remember RAJ is the General Manager who referred to Papelbon’s experience in clutch situations both in the regular season and the playoffs as justification for he insane contract the two sides signed on November 14th, 2011. Ruben may be blinded by some recent Phillies wins, not wowed by any offers from other clubs, and decide to keep Papelbon. This wouldn’t be the smart move, but as RAJ has shown us, he has the ability to make great transactions as well as god-awful ones.
In other related bullpen trade rumors involving the Phillies, it seems that Ruben Amaro and Brian Cashman have been kicking the tires on some possible moves. The Yankees lost Mark Texiera for the season, and have little faith that Kevin Youkilis can come back and stay healthy enough to play one of the corner infield positions. In order to find an upgrade over Lyle Overbay, it seems the Yankees could have interest in Michael Young, and in return Ruben Amaro might have interest in Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain. Chamberlain has produced negative value in 2013 (-0.1 fWAR), and has only pitched 20.1 innings due to injuries and lack of faith on the part of Yankees manager Joe Girardi.
Chamberlain was once highly touted as the next great Yankees starting pitcher, but after 2 seasons in the rotation, one of which constitutes his lone productive season to date, the Yankees moved Chamberlain to the bullpen, where he has been overall mediocre. Chamberlain throws a mid-nineties fastball and a sharply breaking slider, but has had serious difficulty commanding his slider, either throwing it too often for obvious balls or hanging it in the middle of the strike zone. These difficulties can be seen in his rising BB% and increased HR/FB%. Chamberlain, like Michael Young will become a free agent at the end of 2013, but as reported, a swap of the two would give the Phillies an extra $7 million in salary relief.
If the Phillies were to acquire Chamberlain and trade Papelbon the tradeoff value-wise would be about 0.4 fWAR, which is the same value as Kevin Gregg, Jim Johnson, and Tyler Clippard have all provided for their respective clubs this season. It wouldn’t affect the Phillies all that much as they continue to trot out relievers in progress like Justin De Fratus, Jake Diekman, and Phillip Aumont just about every game. Overall, I think Chamberlain has more potential value as a starting pitcher, but his mechanics, confidence, and talent may have diminished so much by now that such a switch wouldn’t be possible or prove fruitful.
Speaking of Phillip Aumont, the key piece in the deal that send Cliff Lee to the Mariners (One of Amaro’s worst transactions to date), has been options once again to triple-A Lehigh Valley. In his stead, the Phillies have called up Luis Garcia. Garcia has bounced around in the Minors, going from the Dodgers to the Nationals prior to ending up in the Phillies system where he has pitched most recently in triple-A. Garcia is a right-handed pitcher who has always posted fairly solid strikeout rates, but has had some issues with control in the past. He had never pitched above A ball prior to this season, but moved quickly through the Phillies farm system, posting FIP’s of 3.40, 2.84, and 3.20 in single, double, and triple-A respectively.
The key to this move is Aumont’s inability to remain in the Majors for any significant amount of time. The Phillies aren’t contending right now, meaning there is no better time for Aumont to work on his issues and gain experience in the Majors than right now, but even given numerous opportunities, the big Canadian righty has had too many command issues to keep him on a mediocre MLB roster. The Phillies have given Aumont every opportunity possible to succeed, but in demoting him this most recent time Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee noted Aumont’s complete inability to induce ground balls not only as inexplicable, but also a justification for sending Aumont up the turnpike to Lehigh Valley. Dubee isn’t wrong, in 14.2 innings pitched in 2012 Aumont garnered a 74.4% ground ball percentage, but that has fallen to 49.2% in 2013 (19.1 innings pitched).
Overall, the Phillies have some serious decisions to make, but hopefully, RAJ and his staff will come to the conclusion that
Paplebon is a sunk cost unless moved for some return as soon as possible. Papelbon’s value will only fall in the coming seasons due to his age, and given team’s irrational desire to grab every veteran reliever pitching for non-contending teams at the trade deadline, Amaro might find some value in return for Papelbon. More importantly, don’t be fooled by the reports of Amaro’s interest in Joba Chamberlain. Chamberlain isn’t very good, probably won’t improve, and is a free agent at the end of the season, but acquiring him could be a shrewd financial decision for the Phillies depending on whether the team trades Michael Young as well. It may not be time to completely give up on Phillipe Aumont, but that timer is in the latter stages or its ticking. Eventually talent and potential talent run out when comparing them to effectiveness and ability to throw more strikes than wild pitches, so don’t expect Phillipe Aumont to ever provide any real value for the Phillies, the Cliff Lee to Seattle deal may officially be close to becoming one of the Phillies franchise worst.