“I definitely did not come here for this”

Es­ti­mated reading time is 5 min­utes.

TWO YEARS AGO, Jonathan Pa­pelbon signed a con­tract with the Philadel­phia Phillies that pro­vides him with $50,000,000 for four years of pitching less than 70 in­nings per season. When re­cently asked about his team’s per­for­mance so far, he quipped, “I def­i­nitely did not come here for this.”

The ace-reliever finds him­self on a foundering team that may sink even deeper than the worst pre-season prog­nos­ti­ca­tions. 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? I mean, what did he come here thinking?

The Phillies were even then a fast-aging team ham­pered with in­juries. That’s a baaaaaaaaaad com­bi­na­tion! Check out these sta­tis­tics as aging indicators:

•  Did he come here for lead-off batter Jimmy Rollins (34 years old), who 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.

•  Did he come here for 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?

•  Did he come here for 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 . . .


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