Why a contender should trade for Jonathan Papelbon


Jonathan Papelbon has been one of the best relievers in Major League Baseball over the last ten years. The Philadelphia Phillies are open to trading nearly anyone on its roster. There’s a dire need for bullpen assistance across the game. Yet despite all of those factors, Papelbon still hasn’t drawn heavy interest from any contenders.

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Papelbon’s contract is the primary reason. He’s owed $13 million in 2015. For 2016, he has a $13 million vesting option that will result if he pitches in 34 games. The terms were designed for the option to vest should Papelbon appear in 100 games between 2014 and 2015 (he’ll only need 34 during the upcoming year to reach that number.) This is now inconsequential, but the option would’ve also resulted from reaching a 55-game total in 2015 had 2014 gone differently.

For the sake of scope, let’s say Papelbon pitches enough to cause that vesting option to kick in. The 34-year-old righty would basically be a two-year, $26 million reliever. That’s pricey, but far from financially crippling or stifling long-term. Given his consistency and strong numbers plus the short-term investment the move would represent, a contender should trade for Papelbon.

The Phillies’ righty took on his first closer role back in 2006 with the Boston Red Sox. His ERA was 0.92 that season. In 2014, it was 2.04. It’s been 2.94 or under in nine seasons. He’s getting up there in age, but he still racked up 66 1/3 innings pitched last year and no less than 61 2/3 frames in any full season.

Papelbon’s durability is strong even at 34 years of age. His K/9 number has been steadily dropping, down to 8.33 and 8.45 the last two years. That’s far from his 12.96 or 12.17 K/9 average when his cheese was 95-96 mph. Now his fastball is closer to 92 mph, but he has compensated for that by lowering his WHIP and forcing more groundballs. He allowed just two home runs in 2014 to go along with a 0.90 WHIP.

That’s my clear case for Papelbon’s value. If Andrew Miller and David Robertson can be worth $9 million or more for four years each, Papelbon can be worth $13 million annually for just two seasons. He can be bumped to a setup role or he can close. His numbers have maintained consistency. He’s yet to substantially fall off with age. Without doubt, he’s immensely valuable.

Now let’s turn to contenders–that’s the title, after all, which teams could use him. Allow me to also claim that considering Philadelphia’s need to move money quickly, the asking price on Papelbon shouldn’t be outrageously high. Three teams come to mind immediately: the Detroit Tigers, Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers, three playoff hopefuls who sorely lack in the bullpen.

Detroit’s best reliever is currently Al Alburquerque or Joakim Soria. The team signed Joe Nathan to a two-year contract to be its closer, but he is coming off a disastrous season and we can’t count on him rebounding at age 40. With money always available in Detroit, wouldn’t the team greatly benefit from Papelbon’s presence?

Toronto has its sights on contention. With the Josh Donaldson trade and Russell Martin signing, Toronto is clearly looking to win. The team’s blessed with Brett Cecil as a nasty lefty, but they lack a true closer with Casey Janssen likely gone. Beyond a closer hole, the Blue Jays are also short on late-inning candidates.

The last suitor, and perhaps the most interesting, would be the Dodgers. It’s speculated that Clayton Kershaw overstayed his starts in the 2014 playoffs because Don Mattingly lacked confidence in the bullpen. Though Kenley Jansen is a fortified closer who wouldn’t surrender his role, Papelbon would be a superb, needed setup man.

This much is understood: Philadelphia has no use for Papelbon anymore. They aren’t winning. Closers aren’t exactly needed weapons on a non-contender. But for a winning team, say Detroit, Toronto or Los Angeles, they have the funds and need for Papelbon. Plus the asking price should be reasonable.

Make the move, contender. If you don’t, take your complaints elsewhere when a promising 2015 season is derailed by bullpen struggles as Papelbon continues to rack up saves for a last-place team.

Next: Red Sox, Nationals Potential Trade Partners?