I didn’t know that Jonathan Papelbon was on the cusp of signing with the Phillies for $50 million until my friend Jane told me Sunday evening during the Giants game. My immediate reaction was glee. The Red Sox made it known they wanted Papelbon back. He’s gone. Theo’s gone. Terry Francona is gone. Boston still has needs in the starting rotation that aren’t being met. While Papelbon’s contribution as closer wasn’t enormous, he is still a good reliever. His departure adds to the image that Boston is currently in disarray.
My second reaction was shock. Are the Philadelphia Phillies serious? Do they actually intend to pay Jonathan Papelbon $50 million over four years? Yankee fans know all too well the dangers of signing relief pitchers not named Mariano Rivera to much of anything. Most often lefties have burned the Yankees (Damaso Marte, Pedro Feliciano) but the Bombers also picked up last year’s prized free-agent reliever for way too much money only to see Rafael Soriano hit the disabled list and struggle for much of the first half of the season. When will teams learn?
Closers are, without exception, the most over valued players in all of baseball. Even the best closers in the game — the Rivera’s, Papelbon’s and Soriano’s — have a limited impact on games because they are one inning pitchers. At most they will pitch in 75 innings in a season, which puts a hard ceiling on the overall value they can contribute over the course of the season. For example, Jonathan Papelbon’s contract will pay him $12.5 million per season. At that salary, if you trust Fangraphs’ value metrics (I know how imperfect these are, so I welcome alternative measures from readers who are sick and tired of reading about these stats), only Papelbon and Craig Kimbrel would have earned Papelbon’s future salary in 2011. While Papelbon would have managed to earn his money this past season, that level of performance is an aberration for him. According to Fangraphs he was only worth more than $12.5 million one other time in his career, in 2008. This is a money losing deal for Philadelphia.
My prediction is that the Phillies will come to regret this contract. Papelbon isn’t this good because closers are of limited value to their teams. Even Mariano Rivera, who is without exception the greatest one inning pitcher in the history of the game, reliever or otherwise, doesn’t actually earn his money on the field during the regular season. In his case, his proven brilliance in the post season combined with his status as a Yankee icon help justify the extra money, but in Papelbon’s case this is one more example of a baseball team throwing money away on an over hyped reliever.