The trade deadline is just two weeks away. The Yankees are in a great position to the buyers. That said, I don't think anyone wants the Yankees to completely sell the farm and mortgage the future yet again. So here's a trade target they can pick up for little while still improving the team: Jonathan Papelbon. You know him. The Phillies have him signed to an over-market contract at $13 million with a vesting option that is almost sure to hit for next year. They don't want him. He doesn't want to be there. You probably hate him too. I know I did for years. But he's the perfect low-cost piece for the Yankees to add at the deadline. Here's why:
He's still very good
Papelbon has been on a terrible Phillies team for a few years now, so I know I've tended to forget how good he is. His headline numbers since signing:
- 2012: 70 innings, 2.44 ERA, 2.90 FIP, 11.9 K/9, 2.3 BB/9
- 2013: 61.2 innings, 2.92 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 8.3 K/9, 1.6 BB/9
- 2014: 66.1 innings, 2.04 ERA, 2.53 FIP, 8.5 K/9, 2.0 BB/9
- 2015: 33.2 innings, 2.60 ERA, 2.75 FIP, 9.4 K/9, 1.9 BB/9
He's pretty good! Papelbon would easily be the 3rd best reliever in the Yankee bullpen behind Miller an Betances. He's right-handed, which the Yankees are desperate for right now. His velocity is down in recent years, but consistent since the beginning of 2014. You could see an argument that Papelbon was on the decline a few years ago, but seems to have righted the ship, and has maintained a high level of play, mostly by replacing two-seam fastballs with four-seam fastballs.
He Makes the Yankee Bullpen Much More Flexible
Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller are better pitchers than Jonathan Papelbon. They're probably two of the four best pitchers in the AL. You've heard this argument before: the Yankees are probably better off giving themselves the flexibility of pitching Miller and Betances all over the innings, instead of holding one back for the 9th. Throwing with the opposite arms increases the ability to leverage their innings even more.
Now, the Yankees can't just throw any old guy in the 9th inning. The closer role is pretty arbitrary, but it's not entirely arbitrary. The closer role naturally evolved out of the logic of inherited runners. When Justin Wilson lets a few guys on in the 7th inning, the Yankees have Dellin Betances to pitch with those guys on. In a close game with lots of relief pitchers used, your closer is the captain who goes down with the ship: no one comes in to relieve him, because the best guys have already been used.
Papelbon is good enough to take that job. He hasn't blown a save all season. There are very few situations where bringing in Betances or Miller to relieve Papelbon will be a plus, and many more where you'd rather Betances or Miller come in to clean up other middle relief messes. And plus, Papelbon has plenty of 'proven closer' street cred with media, and Girardi can lean on that when dumb reporters criticize smart baseball moves.
He might save the Yankees some money
$13 million over 2 years is a lot of money for a relief pitcher. Papelbon is the highest-paid closer in the game, and probably not worth that much money in an absolute sense. It's the reason why he is still a member of the Phillies even as he continues to pitch well. The Yankees have a financial advantage over other teams, and should leverage it regardless of the next paragraph.
All of that said, Papelbon could save the Yankees considerable money over the long term. Dellin Betances is really good. He's probably the best or second best relief pitcher in baseball, and is heading for arbitration after next season. Baseball arbitration is medieval and stupid, and still uses saves as the most important statistic in arbitration decisions. That's why David Robertson earned just $1.6 million, $3.1 million, and $5.2 million in his three arbitration years, while Greg Holland earned $4.7 million and $8.25 million in his first two years, and would likely have earned north of $10 million after this season had he stayed healthy.
If Betances starts earning any real number of saves--either because Miller gets injured, or because they just decide to go with a righty closer in 2016 for non-financial reasons--his arbitration awards could be huge. If the Yankees can knock ~$10 million off Betances' arbitration award, less than the difference between Holland and Robertson, Papelbon's contract looks a lot more affordable. And the best part is the Yankees are one of the few teams in a position to reduce future arbitration dollars by buying Papelbon, which will reduce the Phillies asking price.
Another relief pitcher could be huge in the playoffs
The Yankees will probably make the playoffs. They'll be faced with starting some combination of (if healthy), Michael Pineda, Masahiro Tanaka, Ivan Nova, and whomever they can get at the trade deadline that is better than CC Sabathia or Nathan Eovaldi. Either way, the team should probably go for the Kansas City Royals strategy of leaning heavily on the bullpen.
Having Papelbon at the back end of the bullpen allows Girardi to pull a starting pitcher in the 5th inning and still only have to piece together 3 or 4 outs with Chasen Shreve, Justin Wilson, and company, just like Ned Yost was able to do with his bullpen last season. They can still lean more heavily on the bullpen without Papelbon, but he makes it much more likely we'll have to see some of Bryan Mitchell or Chris Capuano in close game, or that Girardi will let Nathan Eovaldi try to pitch out of a jam the third time through the order.
Playoffs are about short benches. Your 25th man is a lot more important over 162 games than over three short series. Papelbon makes the short bench much stronger.