Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Preemptive Papelbon

It’s sounding more and more like the Jonathan Papelbon trade from the Phillies to the Nationals is going to happen. I’ll have a full write up on the deal once the details are finalized and there is something official to analyze, likely tomorrow or Thursday depending on timing/my day job, but wanted to throw a few things out there to think about now.

First, Papelbon has been good this year. His ERA of 2.04 and FIP of 2.53 are as good if not better than any year he had with the Red Sox. His strikeouts are down slightly, but he’s inducing more groundballs to compensate. His down year with the Phillies was really the result of a 12% HR/FB rate that really sticks out over his career. He’s sitting at 8.6% this year and hasn’t been over 10% in any other season. Could be that he is compensating for playing in the hitters park that is Citizens Bank park by pitching more to weak contact, but I’d have to take a longer look at that. His velocity is down from his days with the Sox as well. He went from averaging 95 MPH with the Sox to 91 MPH today, but it seems like he has been able to change his approach to compensate for this. His numbers compare favorably to Storen, although if you force me to pick, I would have to give the edge in 2015 numbers to Storen. That all leads me to question how Rizzo settled on Papelbon as the piece to acquire. He’s a proven relief pitcher, sure, but picking up a 7th/8th inning reliever (say Junichi Tazawa of the Red Sox, who is likely available) would cost a lot less than I assume the Nationals will have to pay for Papelbon. When you consider that Papelbon will pitch only something in the vicinity of 20-30 innings for the Nationals, is it really worth the price when you already have Drew Storen?

Second, Papelbon has a huge contract. He’s owed $13 million for 2015, so prorated for the remainder of this season and you end up with someone being on the hook to pay Papelbon around $6 million going forward. I would assume that the Phillies pick up a big chunk of that salary, but the actual dollars they send over to cover his contract will directly and inversely affect the prospects the Nationals ship out (i.e. more money = more/better prospects).

That salary owed to Papelbon leads to the next point: where Papelbon will fit in the Nationals’ bullpen. Papelbon has told teams he won’t accept a trade to a team where he won’t close, and he has a huge financial incentive to do that. He has an option in his contract that vests for $13 million for the 2016 season if he finishes 55 games in 2015 or 100 games over the 2014 and 2015 season combined. In 2014, Papelbon finished 52 games and has already finished 34 games this year. That means if Papelbon finishes 14 more games this year, that 2016 option in his contract vests and he will be under contract with the Nationals for 2016 as well. If Papelbon is named the closer, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a scenario where he doesn’t earn the 2016 option. So on the one hand, Papelbon isn’t a half season rental, the Nationals will get a season and a half out of the deal. On the other hand, if he is named closer, that also means that Drew Storen gets demoted, again, following what might be his best year as pitcher. You can question correlation or causation all you want, but last time Storen got demoted for a more expensive closer with more name recognition, he imploded and spent a year putting himself back together. I don’t think that will happen (Storen is a professional and we know it’s not the first time in his baseball career he experienced failure and certainly won’t be the last either).

Finally, there is the question of clubhouse chemistry. Storen, by all accounts, is a popular player both with fans and in the clubhouse. I can’t predict how the players will react to Papelbon taking his spot, but they will have an opinion either way. A lot of that probably depends on which Papelbon shows up in DC. He’s started to garner some bad press for comments he’s made in Philadelphia, criticizing the Philadelphia clubhouse and the Philadelphia fans. Would that make him the enemy of my enemy? It’s hard to fault someone for being angry they got stuck playing for the Phillies, after all. I can almost convince myself to feel sorry for the guy for a moment (then I re-read that salary paragraph and the moment passes). The Papelbon who pitched the Red Sox to a World Series title seemed like a popular player with the fans and his teammates. It’s hard to separate the two.

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