The Red Sox Should’ve Just Paid Papelbon

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Misunderstanding the value of a closer is the Red Sox blindspot.

Adhering too strictly to theories, stats and factoids about closers, the Red Sox have repeatedly made the same mistakes by going back to where their hearts and minds and supposed logic reign instead of where reality and how baseball actually works. They cling to an ideology, occasionally bow to need and concede the point that a legitimate closer is necessary while still holding true to the fanaticism of not paying for saves.

But they are paying for saves with currency other than money and, in retrospect, the $50 million guarantee Jonathan Papelbon received from the Phillies would have been better spent by the Red Sox to keep him rather than do what they’re currently doing, having just acquired their third replacement for him in one year. $50 million is a lot of money, especially for a closer, but here’s the tree of what the Red Sox have spent so far in getting Papelbon’s replacements:

Andrew Bailey

Bailey was acquired from the Athletics and earned $3.9 million in 2012. He spent most of the season on the disabled list with thumb surgery—an unforeseen circumstance to be sure and one that played a large role in the sabotaging of the 2012 season.

To acquire Bailey and Ryan Sweeney however, they surrendered Josh Reddick and two minor leaguers. Sweeney was paid $1.75 million in 2012. Sweeney is a good defensive outfielder in both right and center, but received 219 plate appearances, provided 0 homers, and a .263/.303/.373 slash line, making him nearly worthless at the plate.

Josh Reddick

Reddick earned $485,000 from the Athletics in 2012 and hit 32 homers with 11 stolen bases in 12 attempts and won a Gold Glove in right field for the AL West champs. The Red Sox could certainly have used Reddick in 2012, but they clearly misjudged him, used him as a chip to get a closer and replaced him with Cody Ross.

Cody Ross

Because of his feistiness and everyman likability, Ross became a popular player with the Red Sox and their fans in his lone season as their right fielder. Like Reddick, he could play center field in a pinch; like Reddick he had pop (22 homers), but with no speed and average defense in right field. He cost them $3 million and departed as a free agent for an inexplicable $26 million from the Diamondbacks. To replace Ross, the Red Sox signed Shane Victorino.

Shane Victorino

The Red Sox signed Victorino to a 3-year, $39 million contract. Keith Law referred to Victorino as a “fourth outfielder,” which is absurd. Victorino is a good player with a great attitude and clubhouse presence. He’s versatile and can play both right and center field, is a switch-hitter with power and speed. Victorino gives the Red Sox the freedom to consider trading Jacoby Ellsbury before his heads into free agency after the 2013 season.

That sort of sounds like what Reddick added, except with Reddick they’d have spent around $37.5 million less.

The separate tree to replace Bailey, who replaced Papelbon goes something like this:

Jed Lowrie

Lowrie is an average defensive shortstop at best, but he hit 16 homers with a .769 OPS in 387 plate appearances for the Astros in 2012. He earned $1.15 million last season. The primary Red Sox shortstop, Mike Aviles, had a solid defensive season and hit 13 homers while being paid $1.2 million. It’s a wash on the field, but the Red Sox could’ve gotten something more useful than Melancon for Lowrie.

Aviles was traded to the Blue Jays for the rights to manager John Farrell, whose hiring will be eventually seen as a mistake if he actually has to do some managing rather than sit there and look managerial. Given this roster, his stern face and ability to deal with the press won’t be enough.

Melancon was shipped along with Jerry Sands and Ivan De Jesus Jr. (two players the Red Sox got from the Dodgers in their salary dump/clubhouse enema deal sending Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford to Los Angeles) to the Pirates for Joel Hanrahan.

Mark Melancon

Melancon made $521,000 in 2012. He had closed for the Astros and was acquired to be a set-up man/backup closer for Bailey just in case Bailey got hurt. But when Bailey got hurt, the decision was made (by manager Bobby Valentine or someone in the front office) to use Alfredo Aceves as the closer.

Aceves was, to put it lightly, not Papelbon. As gutty and useful as Aceves was in 2011, he was equally inconsistent, difficult and contentious with management and teammates in 2012.

Melancon? He got off to a dreadful start and wound up back in the minors. When he returned, he pitched better in a far less important role than as the set-up man. To acquire Melancon, the Red Sox gave up Lowrie and Kyle Weiland.

Joel Hanrahan

Now it’s Hanrahan who’s going to be the closer.

Hanrahan is a free agent after 2013, is arbitration eligible and set to make around $7 million next season. He’s probably better-suited than Bailey to the pressure of pitching in Boston as the closer for the demanding Red Sox, but he won’t be a known commodity until he performs. He’s never pitched for a team with these expectations and with free agency beckoning, he might try too hard and pitch poorly. Or he could be Brad Lidge, circa 2008 and be shockingly close to perfect. We don’t know.

All of this is without the horrific misjudgment the team made in trying to make Daniel Bard into a starter and succeeded in nothing more than popping his value like a balloon. Nobody even talks about him anymore, let alone mentions him in a prominent role as a reliever or starter.

Short of re-signing Papelbon, the easy move would’ve been to use the succession theory and simply insert Bard as the closer to replace Papelbon, but they didn’t do that either.

So let’s tally it up:

Hanrahan (±)$7 million + Ross $3 million + Sweeney $1.75 million + Victorino $39 million + Melancon $521,000 = $51.271 million

vs

Papelbon $50 million + Reddick $485,000 + Lowrie $1.2 million = $51.685 million

This is before getting to the Red Sox results in 2012; the dysfunction; and what they could’ve acquired in lieu of Bailey and Hanrahan if they chose to spend the money they spent and players they traded to get them.

Papelbon received a guaranteed $50 million from the Phillies with a vesting option making it worth a possible $63 million. If he reaches the appearance incentives in 2014-2015 to gain the vesting option, that will mean that Papelbon is healthy and pitching well, making the money moot because the club would be getting what they need from him.

The Red Sox never fully appreciated the value of having a pitcher who was automatically the ninth inning man. They’d underestimated the value of a closer in 2003 when not having one cost them the pennant and possibly the World Series; they accepted that they needed one in 2004 when they signed Keith Foulke, paying him $20 million for what amounted to one productive season. If you conducted a poll of everyone involved with the Red Sox from ownership on down and asked them if, prior to 2004, they’d make a bargain in which they paid any closer that amount of money for one season and were rewarded with a World Series, each and every one of them would’ve said yes without a second thought and been right to do it.

Any manager with experience and who isn’t beholden to taking orders from the front office or brainlessly attached to new theories will say that it takes a great deal off his mind to know that when he calls down to the bullpen, more often than not, his closer will be ready and willing to pitch and, the majority of the time, will nail the game down. The numbers of every game in which a club is leading in the ninth inning winning the game being X% regardless of who closes the game is separate from the sigh of relief self-assuredness the team as a whole feels when a Papelbon is out there.

Yet they still hold onto that ideology like it’s the last bastion of what they aspire to be.

A year after Papelbon’s outstanding rookie year in 2006, they put forth the farce of making him a starter before acquiescing to reality and shifting him back to the bullpen. In large part to Papelbon, they were rewarded with a World Series win in 2007.

Conceded the point; clinging; practically; financially; logistically; ideologically; injuries—there are so many words to attach to why the Red Sox run on this treadmill, but none cancel out that the simplest and smartest option would have been to re-sign Papelbon.

You can go on about his WAR being less than 2 wins in both 2011 and 2012, his failures late in the season of 2011 and how he was inaccurately perceived as a clubhouse problem. How inaccurate that was only became known in 2012 when it wound up being Youkilis, Beckett and the other malcontents who were the troublemakers and not Papelbon, who came to play every day.

You can mention the injury concerns, but as you can see in this posting on Fire Brand of the American League, the Red Sox medical staff hasn’t distinguished itself in a positive way in recent years.

You can talk about Papelbon “wanting” to leave or the clubhouse issues, but sometimes all it takes is a branch of communication and the expression from the club that they truly wanted him and said so. They never did. They constantly diminished his importance by refusing to give him a lucrative long-term contract to forego his arbitration years and free agency as they did with other young stars Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Kevin Youkilis. They gave Beckett a 4-year $68 million extension. They paid $106 million in total for Daisuke Matsuzaka. They gave Crawford $142 million. They gave John Lackey $82.5 million.

There was no money to pay one of the best closers in baseball over the past seven years? No financial wherewithal to pay one who had proven himself in the post-season where the true separation between the Mariano Rivera-type and the Joe Nathan-type is made? They were unable to provide a reasonable deal and tell Papelbon that they wanted him back? That was too much of a commitment?

The bottom line with Papelbon is that he was proven in the post-season, durable, able to handle the cauldron of baseball madness that is Boston, and they knew what they were getting without having to do a tapdance to replace him.

Hanrahan might work out or he might become another Bailey. They don’t know. With Papelbon, they did know. They just went cheap and retreated to their core beliefs of not paying for a closer while presenting a litany of excuses as to why they were doing it. All they succeeded in doing, though, was to cost themselves more money and prospects, simultaneously adding more questions to the ones that would’ve been answered had they just accepted reality and paid Papelbon to stay.

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August Waivers Rodeo—National League

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Yesterday I looked at American League players who are going to get through waivers. Now let’s look at the National League.

Jayson Werth, OF—Washington Nationals

Werth has a full no-trade clause and is due around $100 million from now through 2017. He’s just returned from a wrist injury. By playoff time, the Nationals will benefit from his presence; he’s got playoff experience from his Phillies’ days and has had success while there.

Jason Bay, LF—New York Mets

He might as well take over as GM for any club that claimed him because that job would be open immediately upon his arrival. He might be traded somewhere in an exchange of contracts.

Andres Torres, CF—New York Mets

Someone might take him for a low-level prospect. He’s under team control for 2013, but the Mets are going to non-tender him if he’s still with the organization.

Jose Reyes, SS—Miami Marlins

There’s $96 million on his deal from 2013-2016. Given the way the Marlins operate, it’s safe to say that another team is going to be paying it off sooner or later. Maybe sooner. Maybe later. Who knows? No one’s claiming him. He’s not a player around whom to build.

Mark Buehrle, LHP—Miami Marlins

The contract: $11 million in 2013; $18 million in 2014; $19 million in 2015.

With the new ballpark and the pressure on the front office, the Marlins have to put forth the pretense of being competitive in 2013 and Buehrle can still pitch while not costing much for his skills in 2013.

Given the history of the Marlins under Jeffrey Loria, what did the agents of these players—Reyes and Buehrle—think when they got these backloaded deals? That this time there wouldn’t be a sell-off? This time they were going to keep the team together, win or lose? Reyes and Buehrle wanted their guaranteed money and they got it. They might be playing in space by the time the contracts bloat, but so what? They’re getting paid.

Carlos Lee, 1B/OF—Miami Marlins

He has a no-trade clause to 14 teams and isn’t afraid to exercise it. Someone will take him in late August as a righty bat off the bench hoping that a change wakes up his power bat. He’s a free agent at the end of the season.

Carlos Zambrano, RHP—Miami Marlins

The Cubs are paying most of his salary, but he’s been dreadful. The Marlins will end up just releasing him. Barring seven straight no-hitters, Zambrano’s contract kicker for 2013 (activated if he’s in the top 4 of the NL Cy Young voting this season) is not going to be activated. In that event, he also has to be judged “healthy” at the end of this season. Whether that’s physically and mentally is unknown. He has a no-trade clause, but why wouldn’t he waive it?

Ricky Nolasco, RHP—Miami Marlins

He’s signed for 2013 at $11.5 million. Claim him and they’ll give him to you.

Heath Bell, RHP—Miami Marlins

HA!!!!

John Buck, C—Miami Marlins

He’s batting under .200 and hits the occasional homer. He’s owed $6 million for 2013 and throws well enough from behind the plate.

Greg Dobbs, 3B/OF/PH—Miami Marlins

He signed a 2-year, $3 million contract for 2012-2013 and has pop off the bench. Someone like the Tigers would take him for the stretch run.

Ryan Howard, 1B—Philadelphia Phillies

$105 million on his deal through 2016 and is batting under .200 since returning from Achilles tendon surgery.

Chase Utley, 2B—Philadelphia Phillies

He might be worth a claim since he’s signed through 2013 at $15 million. His knees are a major issue, but he can hit.

Jonathan Papelbon, RHP—Philadelphia Phillies

$13 million guaranteed annually through 2015 with a $13 million vesting option. It would take a lot of courage for a team to claim him and for the Phillies to simply let him go. They have designs on contending in 2013, so they won’t dump Papelbon.

Jimmy Rollins, SS—Philadelphia Phillies

Take him and watch him plummet.

Placido Polanco, INF—Philadelphia Phillies

He’s a free agent at the end of the season and is hurt. If he’s healthy by late-August, someone might take him if the Phillies pay his buyout.

Kyle Kendrick, RHP—Philadelphia Phillies

He’s set to make $4.5 million in 2013 and isn’t very good.

Clint Barmes, SS—Pittsburgh Pirates

He’s hitting .211 and is signed for 2013 at $5.5 million.

Francisco Rodriguez, RHP—Milwaukee Brewers

K-Rod will get through and be traded for nothing in late August. Perhaps being in a pennant race as a set-up man will get him back in form—possibly with the Angels or Rangers.

Randy Wolf, LHP—Milwaukee Brewers

He’s a free agent at the end of the season and could help a contending club as a back-of-the-rotation veteran.

Aramis Ramirez, 3B—Milwaukee Brewers

He has a guaranteed $30 million coming to him beginning next season and no one’s taking that.

Alfonso Soriano, LF—Chicago Cubs

The Cubs will have to pay his salary of $36 million in 2013-2014 or take a similar contract, but he still has power and someone would take/exchange him.

Carlos Marmol, RHP—Chicago Cubs

A $9.8 million salary for 2013 makes him essentially unmovable unless the Cubs pay it. He still strikes people out, so someone would probably take him for free.

Barry Zito, LHP—San Francisco Giants

There’s $27 million remaining on his contract in 2013 with the buyout.

Juan Uribe, INF—Los Angeles Dodgers

What a disaster. And he’s got $8 million on his deal for 2013.

Rafael Betancourt, RHP—Colorado Rockies

He’s an effective reliever, but has $4.5 million due him in 2013 with a buyout for 2014. The Rockies probably won’t move him whether he’s claimed or not.

Ramon Hernandez, C—Colorado Rockies

He’s a backup making $3.2 million in 2013.

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The Phillies Need Cole Hamels

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Ruben Amaro Jr. has no intention of giving up on this season or the next several seasons. He said as much—link. Privately he knows the situation is bleak for 2012, but given the age and guaranteed contracts on their roster, how can they conceivably let Cole Hamels leave as a free agent without a viable offer? It’s getting close to the point where the Phillies have to realize that this simply isn’t their year. They’re not there yet, but it’s a few weeks away—conveniently coinciding with the July 31st trading deadline.

After what happened with Cliff Lee having been traded away and then choosing to re-sign with the club a year later, it’s conceivable that the Phillies would check with Hamels to see if he’d be willing to be traded to a contender for the remainder of 2012 so they could re-stock the system and then go after him as a free agent.

Let’s look at the contracts, the guaranteed money owed for 2013 and beyond and the viability of re-signing Hamels.

Lee is owed $87.5 million through 2016.

Roy Halladay will be paid $20 million in 2013 and has a club option for $20 million at 2014.

Ryan Howard is signed for $95 through 2016.

Chase Utley is owed $15 million next season.

Jonathan Papelbon is owed $13 million annually through 2015 with a vesting option at $13 million for 2016.

Jimmy Rollins is guaranteed $22 million through 2014.

Hunter Pence is a free agent after 2013.

All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz has a ridiculously cheap $5 million option for 2013 that, barring catastrophe, will be exercised.

Kyle Kendrick is signed for $4 million next season, but they can find a taker for him.

Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton and Placido Polanco are free agents after this season. Forget Blanton and Polanco coming back and it’s hard to see Victorino being re-signed either.

The Phillies’ current payroll is $172 million.

Lee’s getting a $3.5 million raise next year; Papelbon slightly less than $2 million. Pence will get a raise in arbitration of $4-5 million. They’re slashing between $28 and $36 million (give or take) after Victorino, Blanton, Polanco, Ty Wigginton, Jose Contreras and Kendrick are gone.

Their payroll is going down, so technically this talk that they can’t “possibly” keep Hamels is inaccurate. They can afford to keep Hamels.

The question is will they do it during the season? Will they trade him and hope to re-sign him? Will they trade him and just let him sign wherever? Or will they keep him and take their chances retaining him in free agency?

If what Amaro said is true in terms of keeping the team together until they disintegrate, the Phillies don’t have much of a choice: they have to have Hamels in a Phillies’ uniform.

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