Phillies Reverse Course, Sign Papelbon to Close

On Tuesday, we reported that the Philadelphia Phillies had signed closer Ryan Madson to a four year, $44 million deal. Wednesday came along, and we learned that the deal was never officially agreed to or approved by Phillies owner David Montgomery. Today, the Phillies stepped away from Madson, and signed former Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon to a four year deal worth upwards of $50 million.

Much of the same things I said about the Madson deal are true about the Papelbon deal. The average of $12.5 million (or thereabouts) that Papelbon will make is tied for the second highest annual average value for a closer, tied with former Phillie Brad Lidge (shocking), and just behind Papelbon’s former nemesis in New York, the legendary Mariano Rivera.

2011 was one of Papelbon’s best seasons with the Red Sox, at the age of 30. He saved 31 games (which was actually a career low), had a 2.94 ERA (second highest of his career), but posted a 12.17 strikeout rate and a 1.40 walk rate, both of which were the second best marks of his career. He was worth 3.0 fWAR. His good 2011 season comes on the heels of a disappointing 2010, where Papelbon had a career worst 3.90 ERA.

The deal is paying Papelbon based on the assumption that 2011 is the norm for him. Over his six year career, he’s averaged 2.5 fWAR a season, so the Phillies are once again overpaying slightly, paying Papelbon $5 million per win as opposed to the usual norm of $4.5 million. But here’s the problem: Phillies GM Ruben Amaro is assuming that Papelbon is going to have the same performance over the next four years, entering his mid-30s, as he did during his seasons in his mid to late 20s. Papelbon will be 31 when the deal starts. He’s maintained his fastball velocity over his career, but this is at the point where pitchers start losing it.

I don’t think the Papelbon signing is as much of a risk as the initially reported Madson signing. Papelbon is an established, top-tier closer, albeit one that’s about to start the downswing of his career. Madson is less experienced, and he’s actually three months OLDER than Papelbon. But handing out eight figures to a reliever is a risky move, especially when the deal totals close to $50 million. It seems like an un-necessary risk for a team that just suffered through three years of Brad Lidge’s ill-advised contract.

UPDATE: Jayson Stark just reported on Twitter that the deal also includes a vesting option that could push the total value over $60 million. Someone take away Ruben Amaro’s phone. PLEASE.

About Joe Lucia

I’m the managing editor of Awful Announcing and the news editor of The Comeback. I also made The Outside Corner a thing for six seasons.