Two years ago, Jonathan Papelbon signed a contract with the Philadelphia Phillies that provides him with $50 million for four years of pitching less than 70 innings per season. He apparently signed with the Phillies with the assumption that the team could win—would win. Alas, the ace-reliever finds himself on a foundering team that may sink even deeper than the worst pre-season prognostications.
When asked about his team’s performance so far, he quipped, “I definitely did not come here for this.”
When queried on the fightless Phils ability to get on the right track, Papelbon responded, “It’s going to take, in my opinion, a lot . . . I think it’s going to have to be something very similar to what the Red Sox went through a couple years ago—from top to bottom.”
Um, no offense to Mr. P and his opinion, but what did he think he was signing onto in 2011?
The Phillies were even then a fast-aging team hampered with injuries. That’s a baaaaaaaaaad combination! Check out these statistics as aging indicators:
• Lead-off batter Jimmy Rollins (34 years old) has never been able to brag of a high on-base percentage. This season, he has one of the lowest OBP (.317) of any regular in the league.
• All-Star second baseman Chase Utley (34), arguably the most important member of the team, hasn’t played a full, injury-free season since 2009.
• Clean-up batter Ryan Howard (33), hasn’t had a really BIG season since 2009, when pitchers found out that he could not NOT swing at pitches low and away. Consequently, Howard’s HRs per at bat decline while Ks per at bat rise.
And these were the three most important hitters on the team! This was the heart of the team that Papelbon signed a four year contract to be a member of!
Let me digress here: each of the three players above are quality athletes. My selecting them was the opposite of disrespect: I selected them because they were All-Stars. I also selected them because they are the core of the Phillies problem: age and injuries.
Exactly WHEN Do You Trade a Player?
If I were the general manager of a baseball team, I would have a plaque on the wall of my offices at work and at home that featured Branch Rickey’s famous statement: “It is better to trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.” (Exactly what he said seems to be in contention among historians.)
For the past four years, I have been engaged in an ongoing argument (“a reason given in proof or rebuttal,” or “a discourse intended to persuade” – Merriam-Webster Online) with my Father about the Phillies. I have argued that the Phils should have been trading away each of their over-30 players one per season and replacing them with younger, but still established, players. Three years ago, Rollins, Howard, and Utley had considerable trade value. Today, they have little. Now, back to Mr. Papelbon . . .
Papelbon’s criticism of the Phillies and their decision-makers is justified but such talk NEVER sits well in the world of athletics. To his credit (team-wise), when asked about being traded, he said, “I would like to stay here.” Then he qualified that flat statement, ruining its effect by stating, “But if I’m going to have to put up with this year after year—then no, I don’t want to be here. Why would you? Why would anybody?”
Which Offer Should a Free Agent Take?
The point of this piece of mine is that, though the years, I am consistently astounded by quality free-agents in baseball who almost always confuse the MOST MONEY offered them with the BEST DEAL offered them.
That is, a player like Papelbon might have taken $5-10 million less and signed with a contending team in its prime. Sure, it is a lot less money, but, after the first $40 mil or so, wouldn’t racking up saves and possibly playing in the World Series have an allure that is, in the one word of a very effective advertising campaign, “priceless” . . .
Another example is of a player that I will not name (and the stats below are approximations so the reader doesn’t guess to easily who I am talking about here) who had a pretty good season or two with the Mariners some years ago. Our local paper pointed out that his offensive statistics were being hurt by playing 81 games a year in Safeco Field.
His batting stats for the previous twos year showed a player that hit .245 with 15 homers and 70 RBI per year if he played all 162 games in Safeco. A fine fielder and baserunner, he would have been known solely as a defensive wiz and been sought after as such and paid accordingly.
But when not playing at Safeco, for those other 81 games per year on the road in what are collectively referred to as “neutral parks,” this guy hit .295 with 30 HR and 95 RBI. Combine that with his defense and you have an All-Star who would command BIG bucks with almost any team in MLB!
Alack and alas, come free agency and he signed for the biggest deal, not the best deal. That is, he could have taken less money but played for a team with a home park that benefitted, even inflated, his offensive numbers. This would have been to his advantage in two BIG ways: he would have been a lot happier putting up numbers that grabbed everyone’s attention, and he would have seen his value rise as a free agent rise.
Instead, since leaving the Mariners, he has bounced from team to team, putting up the kind of numbers that makes him valuable to fill a place in the line-up until the rookie in the wings is ready for the bigs.
Finally, as a fan of Bill James, I am puzzled that more players don’t seek out James-based Sabermetricians and hire them to advise them on the opportunities being offered them when their free agency arrives. Certainly such a statistician would have warned Jonathan Papelbon that if he hoped to play with a winner, then signing with the Phillies was a loooooooooooooong shot! That perhaps another team offering less money would have provided him with more joy, more accomplishment.
But then, no one has ever offered me $50,000,000 . . .