Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Papelbon Conundrum

Late Tuesday night, or technically very early Wednesday morning, Sports Illustrated's Jon Heyman reported that the Philadelphia Phillies and closer Ryan Madson have agreed to a four year deal worth $44 million. Last season was his first as the team's full-time closer, but he has been a great reliever the past few years, keeping both his ERA and FIP under three the past two seasons. Even so, this is a monstrous deal for a reliever, and one that will surely affect the Red Sox in the coming days and weeks. 

Jonathan Papelbon has long said that upon hitting free agency, he wants to set the mark for closers' contracts. The fact that Madson reportedly just got a surprisingly huge contract just means that Papelbon is going to want something that at least matches his years, and exceeds his money. For a starting point, I'd think that he will look for something like 4 years for $50-52 million. The question then becomes, what do the Red Sox do.

Coming into the offseason, I assumed Papelbon could be had for a three year deal, and I would have accepted that. However, with these latest revelations, it looks like a team may need to give up another year to have the closer, who is entering his age-31 season next year (Madson is about three months older). To me, the only closer who deserves that deal is The Great One, Mariano Rivera. However, in this closers market, that may all change. Papelbon surpasses Madson in just about every category, and is well within his right to use Madson's contract as reasoning he needs a long-term, big money contract. If I'm running the Red Sox, I don't want to be the team to give him all those years. 

Plainly speaking, relievers not named Rivera just aren't worth four years and around $13 million per year. When you consider the plethora of experienced closers on the market this year, I wouldn't mind seeing another guy being brought in for much less. One guy to consider is Francisco Rodriguez. K-Rod had a rough 2009, but other than that has been a very good closer, contributing at least 1.4 fWAR every year since 2004, excluding 2009, and is a year younger than both Papelbon and Madson. He has had an ERA under three 7 times in the last 8 years, and a FIP under three 5 times in that span, with two more seasons being under four. Last year, he proved himself in a setup role with Milwaukee, but made it clear that he is still ready for end-of-game situations, and can probably be had much cheaper on a one or two year deal. 

Another interesting guy to look at would be Jonathan Broxton, although I'd be more hesitant on him than K-Rod. The former Dodgers closer was hurt last year and only pitched in 14 game because of that. In 2010, he didn't pitch great with a 4.04 ERA, but he was better than that with a 3.01 FIP and 3.20 xFIP. The two years before that he was one of the premiere closers in the game. He does have some weight problems, which will probably make some in Red Sox Nation hesitant after the disaster that was Bobby Jenks. However, if he can be had on a cheap, one year deal, he could be a low-risk, high-reward signing. He has had double-digit K/9 in all of his full seasons, and while his walk-rate doesn't look great, last season's HR/9 is incredibly inflated, and most likely would have come back down had he had more appearances for that to happen.

There are other closers on the market worth a look, including but not limited to Heath Bell, Matt Capps and Joe Nathan. However, in the end, I think the Red Sox will end up over paying for Papelbon and keeping the bullpen largely the same as last year. Personally, I would like to see that money used somewhere else (right field?). If it were me, I think I would lean towards Francisco Rodriguez. If he doesn't work out, or has to spend some time on the DL, Daniel Bard could jump into the role and we can finally see how he works out. Also, call me crazy, but I can see Bobby Jenks making some sort of comeback to being a respectable reliever. The coming weeks will be very entertaining, and the closers' market is a big one to watch, especially as Red Sox fans.


  1. I've heard Heath Bell's name bandied about a bit. His numbers look good, but Petco Park makes any pitcher look better. Joe Nathan is old, but maybe for a year or two. I'd also put Brad Lidge into that camp, as I blogged about.

    If Bard ends up getting the call, then the Sox really need to spend the money rebuildin the bullpen. Bring up Reddick or Kalish in right field, and suffer through some rookie mistakes.

  2. Bell's dramatic drop in K-rate scares me a little. Plus he'll be in the group that wants too much money for a closer. I wouldn't mind a one-year deal to a reclamation type project.