November 11, 2011
After a deal for incumbent closer Ryan Madson(notes) fell apart on the operating table, the Philadelphia Phillies needed to address the ninth inning somehow. So they shifted their attention to free agent Jonathan Papelbon(notes) and negotiated an even richer contract for him Friday.
Reporter Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly had it first: The Phillies agreed with Papelbon on a four-year deal, plus a vesting option for a fifth season, that would be worth at least $60 million.
Assuming the deal gets done, Jayson Stark of ESPN says, it would be the largest free-agent contract for a reliever in history, beating out the deal B.J. Ryan got from the Blue Jays in 2006. That deal was a disaster. Because Papelbon is a reliever, this one could be too. There's no more inconsistent commodity in baseball than a relief pitcher.
If he passes a physical, the contract would take Papelbon away from Fenway Park and the Boston Red Sox, where his dominance delighted home fans and his mound antics annoyed opponents.
Papelbon had a great 2011 season: 2.94 ERA, 31 saves in 34 opportunities, 87 strikeouts, 10 walks and a .546 OPS by opponents in 64 innings. That said, he was bad in 2010 — mostly because of worse control and home runs allowed. And even though '11 was great overall, Papelbon's final game — Sept. 28 against the Orioles — will always be associated with Boston's epic collapse. No, Red Sox fans, Papelbon can't take Robert Andino(notes) with him.
Papelbon is about three months younger than Madson and has thrown 200 fewer innings in his career. He's got 219 saves, compared to 52 for Madson. Papelbon also brings with him a "presence." To give you an idea of where he's coming from, here's an interview Chris Jones of Esquire did with Papelbon in 2009.
So, the Phillies not only get one of the best closers in the game, but someone everybody else loves to hate. That's worth $60 million, right? Well, if you value the ninth inning exponentially over every other inning, sure. And Phillies GM Ruben Amaro apparently does. To compare: Mariano Rivera(notes) of the Yankees has made $75 million the past five seasons. Of course, that's the Yankees, with their bottomless pit of a local TV deal.
The Phillies are a big-market team with a large TV audience — make no mistake. But the Ryan Howard(notes) contract extension begins this season, and they still need a third baseman, shortstop and perhaps another hitter to at least take Howard's place until he returns from an Achilles' heel rupture. The Phillies need offense, period, and maybe it will come later in free-agent season.
Boston would get two draft picks in return (unless the compensation system for free agents is overhauled in the new collective bargaining agreement). The Phillies also would surrender their first-round pick, which they would more or less get back if they offer arbitration to Madson (again, if the compensation system stays the same).