Earlier this week, a Boston-based baseball writer speculated in his column that the Phillies believe that St. Louis might be interested in Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon.
Mind you, there was no real substance behind his assertion, but it made the usual rumor-mill rounds all the same. This move would make no sense for the Cardinals, and here are five reasons why:
Papelbon makes $13 million, which is ridiculous money for a pitcher (not named Mariano Rivera) at such a fungible position on the diamond. Every year, closers lose their jobs, whether due to injury, ineffectiveness or trade. A large-market team like Philadelphia can absorb that kind of salary commitment much easier than St. Louis. Papelbon has pitched 70 innings in his career exactly ONCE (last season). From what I’ve read, the Cardinals try to keep their budget for salaries in the $100-110 million range. Earmarking over 10% of that to one reliever would be a stupid decision for any team in that salary range, especially one on the downside of his career, which leads me to my second point…
2) Papelbon is not a sure thing
The 32-year-old Papelbon, who has blown two of his past three save opportunities, including last night against Washington – has developed some troubling patterns since joining the Phillies: 1) he is allowing home runs at the highest rate since his rookie season in 2005; 2) his K/9 ratio has dropped from almost 12-to-1 in 2012 to 8-to-1 this season; and 3) his fastball velocity is dropping. In 2012, his average heater was 93.8 mph. This season, it has fallen to 92.6. When the difference between a fastball and slider decreases, both pitches become easier for hitters to pound. Papelblown, er, Papelbon used to be able to blow hitters away with his pure power stuff. That ability is starting to abandon him; and once the fastball goes away, it usually doesn’t come back. He might still be able to get by as a reasonably effective reliever, but that’s not exactly the best use of $13 million, is it?
3) No need.
This is perhaps the most obvious point. The Cardinals HAVE a closer with whom they are quite happy, thank you. Edward Mujica is 21-for-21 in save opportunities. Can’t be much more of a shutdown closer than that, can you? Now, is he the “prototypical” power closer who overwhelms batters with 95-plus gas or a devastating slider? No. In fact, he primarily has thrown a split-change since becoming the closer in April. But he has thrown the pitch so effectively that hitters are batting below .200 against him for the season. Is he the type of closer you can count on in October? Well, let’s look at the closers of the past five World Series champions:
Obviously, Rivera is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and maybe the greatest reliever of all time. But Romo? A career set-up guy who took over the closer’s job due to injury (very similar to Mujica). Wilson? More known for his beard and goofy antics than his dominant pitching. Lidge? Briefly dominant with the Astros (2004-05), imploded, then rebounded for one last great year with the Phillies in 2008. Motte, of course, was Tony LaRussa’s unofficial closer during the glorious run in 2011 and was superb in 2012, but he’s out for the year and an unknown quantity for the future. Other than Rivera, Mujica’s effectiveness matches up quite well with any of the other four.
4) Organizational depth.
Even if Mujica blows up in July or August, the Cardinals have alternatives on the roster. Trevor Rosenthal has been overpoweringly filthy in his 8th inning role, striking out nearly 13 batters per nine innings of work and regularly touching 98 mph on the radar gun. Many people expected him to take the closer’s job instead of Mujica. He could be just as effective as Motte was in 2011-12, given the chance. Joe Kelly is another reliever whom I believe could succeed in the role. He has a mid-90s fastball and no fear of opposing hitters. Heck, I’d give Carlos Martinez or Seth Maness a shot at the job before I would even think about considering whether Papelbon was an option. The point is, the team has several in-house options that would be preferable.
5) What would the cost be to acquire Papelbon?
Philadelphia isn’t going to just give him away, of course. They have a barren farm system and need to rebuild. Given that, you have to figure that they would ask for a top prospect like Martinez, Michael Wacha, or Oscar Taveras. Such a request should cause John Mozeliak to burst into a fit of laughter as he hangs up the phone. Sacrificing six years of cost-controlled Wacha for an overpriced closer with a declining fastball? PASS. Decisions like that get general managers fired. This is not something Mozeliak has shown any inclination to do since taking the reins as GM. Even if the Phillies requested lesser prospects or offered to pay, say, half of Papelbon’s contract, such a move would make little sense. This is another area where Cafardo’s speculation makes little sense. Has anyone with actual knowledge of the team reported any interest in Papelbon? If so, I haven’t seen it. This strikes me as a classic “let’s throw this against the wall and see if it sticks”-type rumor. That might have made more sense when Walt Jocketty was the GM, but that was many years ago.
If the Cards were to consider acquiring a veteran reliever, they would be better off with someone like the Rockies’ Rafael Betancourt – reasonable $4.25 million option for 2014, plenty of experience pitching for a contender, or Luke Gregerson from the Padres (which would give St. Louis the chance to reclaim Gregerson for its bullpen after the disastrous Khalil Greene trade). Not lobbying for Betancourt or Gregerson; just pointing them out as better options than Papelbon.
Finally, Papelbon doesn’t seem like a Cardinal-type player to me. Fox Sports loved to focus the cameras on him when he pitched for the Red Sox, and he comes off as an attention hog with a big mouth. It went over well in Boston when they were winning, but as the Red Sox struggled, he fell out of favor and they made no effort to sign him after the 2011 season. Given how tight the free-agent market has become towards relievers, he was extremely fortunate to land a huge contract from Philly. Personally, I find the idea of him possibly wearing the Birds on the Bat as distasteful as I would Manny Ramirez or Ryan Braun. If they wanted an obnoxious relief pitcher with declining skills, they could have signed Wilson. Since that hasn’t happened, I’m going to assume the team doesn’t wish to waste its money in such a fashion, but I digress.
All one has to do is look at the situation logically, and frankly, it makes no sense for the Cardinals’ business model. The combination of drastically overpaying for Papelbon in terms of salary AND young talent is one that makes no sense for a team like the Cardinals. The only surprising aspect is how much attention it has drawn from other national baseball “experts,” when in fact it should be filed in the circular file where most rumors end up.
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