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Would a Jonathan Papelbon Trade Really Help the Phillies?

The Phillies are reportedly trying to trade their closer Jonathan Papelbon, and many fans seem overjoyed at the prospect of having Papelbon become an ex-Phillie. This enthusiasm seems to be based on some combination of the following beliefs:

1. Papelbon is paid a high salary, and theoretically that money could then be spent in other ways to improve the roster.

2. He is a clubhouse cancer who is hurting team chemistry.

3. Trading him would bring a good prospect in return.

4. The team has a superior alternative option at closer.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure that getting rid of Papelbon is going to do much – if anything – to improve the Phillies’ chances in either 2014 or the years to come. I’ll explain why by taking a look at each of those four beliefs:

Money

There is no denying that Papelbon is overpaid. It’s difficult to justify paying any closer the amount of money that Papelbon will be owed over the next two seasons, let alone one whose performance appears to be declining. It is almost a given that if Papelbon is traded, the Phillies would have to pick up a sizable percentage of the money he is owed. If that’s the case, then how much additional money would be available to spend on other players? If they can’t afford to pay one of the top free agent starters as is, I have trouble believing that whatever savings they gain from trading Papelbon would make a difference.

If the additional money won’t allow them to sign anyone else, then what’s the point? The Phillies showed a willingness to eat money when they traded Jim Thome in 2005, but that was because they were motivated to get Ryan Howard into the lineup. There is no top young player waiting to take over Papelbon’s spot, and as a result, they might have to sign another veteran reliever, which would further diminish the amount saved.

Chemistry

Papelbon does not appear to be especially popular in the clubhouse, and his “I didn’t come here for this” comments didn’t endear him to fans or teammates.  There seems to be a sentiment that management now views him as being more trouble than he’s worth.

I am not privy to the inner workings of a major league clubhouse, but aren’t relief pitchers often somewhat set apart from the rest of the team? If Papelbon is enough to upset a team that is filled with players who should be veteran leaders, then that’s a sign of a much greater problem.

Prospects

The days of teams trading top prospects in exchange for veterans appear to be over.  Given the recent explosion in free agent salaries, it makes more financial sense for teams to hoard their young players rather than use them as trade bait.  With the rise of sabermetric analysis in front office decision-making, the perceived value of a closer has never been lower. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that a team would be willing to give up a prospect of any esteem in exchange for a closer – especially one who is regarded as being on the decline as Papelbon is. Unless a team was truly desperate for a closer, they are simply not going to give up much for Papelbon.

The only chance the Phillies could get anything more than a middling prospect in return is if they tried to trade him at the trade deadline.  This scenario depends on Papelbon having a strong start to the season, and a contender with bullpen issues deciding that they can’t compete without a proven option in the ninth inning.

Better Options

Papelbon may have had his struggles last year, and his declining velocity and strikeout rate are major concerns.  Yet it is hard to say that the Phillies could find anyone to fill that role who would do any better.

Are there any other pitchers on the roster who you’d feel comfortable inheriting the closer role if Papelbon was traded? Mike Adams and Antonio Bastardo have the most major league experience, but both of them are major question marks in their own right.  The team has a few young pitchers with some potential, but none of them are even lock to make the Opening Day roster at this point, let alone serve as the closer.  The Phillies could pursue a free agent like Grant Balfour, but considering that the Orioles recently changed their minds about him, he is far from a sure thing.  Are there any other free agents that would definitely be better than Papelbon?

I can understand why the fans want to be rid of Papelbon.  He’s overpaid, he appears to be in decline, and his comments last year didn’t endear him to anyone.  Unfortunately, the reality is that unless something unexpected happens, the team is still better off with him on the roster.

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