As many rumors have been surrounding my previous subject in this series, Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels, controversial closer Jonathan Papelbon has garnered almost as much interest and ink as the MLB non-waiver trade deadline approaches like a freight train.
Papelbon has a few issues that would seem to be different from Hamels, perhaps making him a more difficult piece to deal in the eyes of some. But frankly, he also has issues in his favor in relation to the Phils’ starting ace that should make him easier to deal.
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Before we look at the more interesting potential destinations for Paps, let’s examine what any team would be getting in return.
The 34-year old Papelbon was a 4th round selection by the Boston Red Sox in the 2003 MLB Amateur Draft out of Mississippi State University. Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he moved on to star at Bishop Kennedy HS in Jacksonville, Florida prior to his Mississippi college days.
Papelbon quickly climbed through the Bosox organizational minor league ladder over the 2004-05 seasons as a starting pitcher, making his big league debut on July 31st of 2005 with a start at Fenway Park. In 5.1 innings against the Minnesota Twins that day, Paps allowed 2 earned on 4 hits, striking out 7, but also walking 5 batters in a no decision.
Jul 24, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon (58) pumps his fist after beating the Chicago Cubs 5-3 at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY SportsHe would make just two more starts before Boston converted him permanently to a reliever role. After a few shaky outings, he began to thrive. From September 1st through the end of that 2005 regular season, Papelbon appeared in a dozen games. He allowed no runs in 11 of the 12, striking out 15 and walking 5 while allowing 10 hits in 14 innings.
Those 2005 Red Sox, coming off their first World Series championship in 86 years, finished tied atop the AL East with the Yankees. But they lost out on the divisional crown thanks to a regular season series tie-breaker, and were swept out of the AL Divisional Series by the eventual champion White Sox.
Papelbon was off to a solid career start, and he became the Boston closer the following season. From 2006-11, Papelbon would amass 219 Saves, becoming the Red Sox all-time franchise leader. He came in 2nd in the 2006 AL Rookie of the Year race, was an AL All-Star for 4 straight years from 2006-09, and had outstanding 2.33 ERA and 1.018 WHIP marks in his time in Boston.
Also, Papelbon proved to a be a big game performer. In 18 postseason appearances, he had one Win and 7 Saves. His first 17 appearances were scoreless, and included his recording the final out of the Red Sox’ 2007 World Series victory over the Colorado Rockies when he struck out Seth Smith swinging at Coors Field.
Papelbon became a free agent following the 2011 season, which had been a franchise record-setting 102-win season for the Philadelphia Phillies, who had won 5 consecutive NL East crowns at that point. Paps signed to be the Phils new closer, inking a deal that made him the highest-paid closer in the history of the sport.
With the Phillies, he continued his excellent pitching. Since coming to Philly, Papelbon has become the franchise’ all-time Saves leader with 123. His 2.31 ERA and 1.022 WHIP marks nearly match his Boston numbers exactly. Now in 10+ big league seasons, Papelbon has finished 538 games, and accumulated 342 Saves. In 667 innings he has allowed just 513 hits, with an outstanding 761/167 K:BB ratio.
Papelbon has been in the past and is now an outstanding closer, one of the best in the game. He has tons of big game experience, including closing out a World Series. He has never suffered any significant injury. He is an ultimate competitor who, despite some colorful moments captured in the media, is said to be an excellent locker room presence.
The only real black mark against Papelbon is his contract, which calls for him to receive a $13 million guaranteed 2016 contract if he finishes just 14 more games this season, which would appear to be a no-brainer. That is a lot for a closer, even in today’s game with exploding contract prices. So, who might have the most interest, be the best fit?
Let’s start off right where we did yesterday with Hamels, where the Phillies are visiting at this very moment. The Cubs have slipped a half-game behind the Giants in the Wildcard race, and they desperately need a shutdown closer if they want to actually contend this season. They have a couple of arms with recent closing experience with winning teams in Rafael Soriano and Jason Motte. But there are reasons that those teams let their arms go. Papelbon would provide that shutdown 9th inning presence, and allow manager Joe Maddon to then use his other arms as 7th and 8th inning setup role players. They have prospects to deal, including some arms that would be attractive to the Phillies. This might be a perfect match, and at least in my mind, Theo Epstein would be a fool to let the Phillies leave town and take Paps with them.
The defending World Series champions are finding themselves in an unfamiliar odd-year position, as contenders again. They took over the 2nd Wildcard spot from the Cubs just yesterday, now leading that race by a half game. They are also just 2 games behind the arch-rival Dodgers for the NL West lead. The GMen have been getting by with Santiago Casilla as their closer, and they have Sergio Romo with recent big-game closing experience, as well as young fireballer Hunter Strickland. They have bullpen depth, and have not been rumored on him at any point. But an acquisition of Papelbon gives them a shutdown, experienced 9th inning guy, and allows skipper Bruce Bochy the same luxury as it would Maddon, to better mix and match these other arms in the 7th and 8th innings. If Papelbon went to either the Cubs or Giants, it could be the single difference in deciding a postseason berth.
This one has popped up as an interesting rumor in recent days. The Nationals are absolutely in a win-now mode. While their future remains bright, they also have a handful of pieces aging, some fragile arms among their talented starting pitching, and have battled injury issues all season long. But the Nats are probably about to start getting healthy, just in time to pull away from the pack. The Mets are trying to make moves to bolster their lineup and make a run. Papelbon would allow the Nats to move the excellent Drew Storen to a strong 8th inning setup role, veterans like Casey Janssen and Matt Thornton to a 7th inning and matchup role, and really make this a team shutdown strength.
Speaking of the Mets, they’ve been getting good work from Jeurys Familia in the closer role. But they are also thin in their pen, and have no one at all with a Papelbon pedigree. As with Washington, he would allow Familia to drop into a setup role, and allow guys like Bobby Parnell, Alex Torres, and Jenrry Mejia to become strong matchup arms. They’re more focused on bats, and need offense badly. They have not been linked to Papelbon. But getting him would certainly firm up the back of their pen for this year and next while they look for those bats.
Another team with a closer already in Kenley Jansen, who also could become a lights-out setup man with a Papelbon acquisition. Of course, Paps could become the setup man in LA, and he might not like that at all, considering he needs those “games finished” to accumulate in order to vest the 2016 contract. It might make him attractive to the Dodgers, who not only could afford his contract, but who also could simply take him as a rental, putting him in the setup role and not having to worry about the option, unless Jansen should get hurt or become otherwise disabled, which has happened in the past.
Huston Street is as accomplished a closer as Papelbon, aside from the World Series. This is another scenario where one of the other of the two arms could serve as not only an excellent setup man, but also as perfect insurance against an injury. With arms like Joe Smith and Trevor Gott as the only real backups, this could be a nice fit.
This team quite obviously wants to win right now. They are battling the Halos in the AL West neck and neck. They currently have a bunch of arms who would seem far better suited to setup and matchup roles, such as current closer Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Josh Fields, and Chad Qualls. Papelbon would be a perfect addition for this team, and they have the prospects to get a deal done. This matchup should be talked about more than it is now. At the All-Star break, Papelbon said he was willing to go to the “Dirty South” among other locations. It’s getting pretty dirty in Houston these days.
This is an organization that has been linked to Papelbon for months, and it’s possible that they may have been close to a deal a couple of times recently, if some rumors are to be believed. The Jays have fallen to the .500 mark, but are only 4 games out of the 2nd AL Wildcard, just 5.5 out of the AL East race. Paps himself recently said they were a “good fit” for a trade. The Jays have the offense to contend, but they have no pen. Roberto Osuna? Aaron Loup? Brett Cecil? Please. This team needs Papelbon as much as any team in baseball.
I am going to keep saying that Papelbon and the Yankees are a perfect fit until someone in the Bronx front office listens to me. Imagine this surprising Yankees contending team, leading the AL East by 5.5 games, adding Papelbon as a lock-down closer. It then bumps two tremendous arms, lefty Andrew Miller and righty Dellin Betances, to setup roles and would create a bullpen to match the great Royals pen. Those three would turn every game into a 6 inning game for the starters and matchup relievers. Frankly, I think the Yanks are going to need a starting pitcher or two to hold their divisional lead. But this is also a tremendous idea. And besides, can’t you already see Papelbon in the Yankees uniform? The drama of having this former Red Sox icon in pinstripes? Awesome stuff.
This is yet another Phillies piece that would clearly fit a number of contending options. The Phils have already said that they are willing to eat some or all of Papelbon’s contract, if they get the right prospect piece in return. It would probably take just one really strong such prospect to get them to pick up the whole option. Someone should find a way to make that happen.
In any event, no matter the return, I think this is a deal that will get done prior to the deadline. If Papelbon is still in red pinstripes on August 1st, I will be extremely surprised..