Overpaying Papelbon

By The Common Man

News broke this afternoon (via Jim Salisbury) that the Phillies signed free agent closer Jonathan Papelbon to a mammoth $50 million deal over four years (with a potential vesting option that could push it to $60 million), immediately forgetting the lesson they learned with Ryan Madson: Closer are made, not born. Sure, you might expect a team to overpay for an absolutely elite reliever (like Craig Kimbrel or Mariano Rivera) who just happened to pitch in the 9th inning, but nothing to this degree. Nothing like $12.5 million per season over four years.

Relievers are incredibly volatile, and Papelbon himself is a great example of this. In the last four years, his xFIP has been 2.34, 3.91, 3.56, and 2.16, and he’s been worth anywhere between 1.2 and 3.0 wins above replacement per season according to FanGraphs. He’s also going to be 31, has never pitched more than 70 innings in any regular season, and has severely struggled with his control in two of the past three seasons.

To put this in some perspective, Papelbon is going to earn somewhere around (based on his average IP over the last four seasons) $180,000 per inning in 2012 and beyond. If you were to pay Roy Halladay (who has averaged 242 innings over the last four seasons) at the same rate, he would make $43.5 million a year. Even if you add some extra credit for pitching in the ninth inning, there is no way that a closer is worth that kind of money. Especially to the Phillies who, while wealthy, do not have the infinite resources of the Yankees.

Papelbon’s a good reliever, don’t get The Common Man wrong. But there’s no way that he will be worth the value of the contract over the course of the next four seasons. Ruben Amaro has, once again, overpaid for a player over 30, and has hampered the long-term flexibility of his club. The Phillies still have a huge arbitration settlement to work out with Cole Hamels (that will be at least $14 million) and Hunter Pence (h/t to @sodiology for the reminder about Pence), and they have $126 million committed for the upcoming season (according to Cot’s Contracts) with a corner outfield spot and shortstop left to fill. The Phillies may be managing to tread water in 2012, but this is going to be impossible to sustain much further beyond that.

Bonus: The Phillies also signed Jim Thome the other week to a one-year deal worth a little over a million dollars.  It’s not too much to pay for Thome, but the Phillies are a strange team to pay it.  Thome cannot DH in the National League (except in interleague play) and has proven unable to stay healthy as a designated hitter over the past couple seasons with the Twins and Indians.  To expect him to be any more durable at 41 years old while spending even a little time at firstbase is ridiculous.  And, in this age of 12 man pitching staffs, the Phillies are severely limiting their bench options by having Thome riding the pine as solely a pinch hitting option (also, Thome has hit just .233/.354/.408 in his career as a pinch hitter, though that’s in just 144 plate appearances).  It’s nice to see Thome getting another year in the Majors (especially since, with regular playing time, he may become the All Time leader in strikeouts), but it’s incredibly odd that it’s taking place in Philadelphia, and Ruben Amaro may eventually regret having such a one-dimensional player on his team.