How Not to Rebuild a Baseball Team

This is a guest post by my friend Asif, a Red Sox fan who writes Uninformed Commentary.


This Friday, discerning baseball fans were rather shocked when the Philadelphia Phillies gave former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon 4-years and $50 million to relocate to the city of brotherly love. While some have cheered the move due to Papelbon’s successful track record in baseball’s toughest division (the AL East), make no mistake, the Papelbon contract is colossally stupid and an indication of a wider problem in the way the Phillies approach building their team. Let’s break down the reasons why this was a bad move, while analyzing it in the context of where Philadelphia stands moving forward.

1.      The Phillies would have been much better off retaining Ryan Madson. 

Early last week, it appeared that the Phillies were close to a 4-year $44 million agreement with Madson, who stepped nicely into Philadelphia’s closer role last season. Apparently, Phillies ownership backed out of the deal when GM Ruben Amaro sent it to them for approval, which led Amaro to sign Papelbon instead. Leaving the money aside for right now, Madson is a better pitcher than Papelbon at this stage in their respective careers. After a disastrous 2010, Papelbon was great in 2011 as he rediscovered the splitter that was his out pitch early in his career. There’s been some speculation that Papelbon stopped throwing the splitter to preserve his arm for his walk year and if that’s the case, I’d be extremely worried as a Phillies fan. When Papelbon is a one-pitch pitcher, he is very predictable and homer-prone. Furthermore, Papelbon is no longer the guy from 2006 and 2007 who could be used for two-inning saves–he’s much more of a three-out ninth-inning only type these days, albeit a very good one. Right now, Madson would not only have been cheaper, but offers more flexibility and a better pitch mix, with the ability to miss bats using both the fastball and changeup.

 2.      Attrition rates for relievers are staggering.

Unless you’re talking about Mariano Rivera, who transcends physics, giving a four-year contract to a reliever on the wrong side of 30 is a bad idea. How many long-term reliever contracts have we seen work out in the past? Francisco Rodriguez was an albatross for the Mets as was Billy Wagner for a time. The Phillies should know better than this given that Brad Lidge had only one good year over the course of his contract in Philadelphia. It’s pretty telling that the Red Sox let the best reliever in team history walk away without even offering a formal contract. As GM Ben Cherington indicated, the Red Sox didn’t think allocating four years to Pap was a smart investment. The fact is, most relievers really only have a short window of excellence and while Papelbon may be the best of his generation, it’s not insane to think his time has come and gone.


As for the age factor here, it seems to be a recurring theme in Philadelphia…

3.      The Phillies don’t seem to understand how aging works.

The Phillies are the best team in the NL East, and probably the whole NL. They built their foundation on the backs of great, young, home-grown talent. They’d do well to understand that when they hit the free agent market. Volumes of research have proven that most major leaguers hit their performance peaks between the ages of 28 and 30 and begin to decline after that. The Phillies don’t seem to grasp this concept as they’ve given huge contracts to Raul Ibanez (3 years $30MM) despite the fact that he can’t hit lefties or play left field; Ryan Howard (5 years $127MM) despite the fact that he can’t hit lefties or breaking balls and looks to have a terrible aging profile; and now Papelbon, all on the wrong side of 30. Ibanez will likely be replaced by Domonic Brown this season, which is a step in the right direction, but the Phillies are planning to replace the injured Howard with a platoon of Jim Thome and possibly Michael Cuddyer, which is a step back. While Thome can still crush the baseball and Cuddyer is a decent bat against lefties, neither of them plays first base well (Thome hasn’t played there in years) and both are again, on the wrong side of 30. Sensing a pattern here?


The Phillies are aging across the board. Jimmy Rollins, who will likely depart as a free agent this winter, has clearly lost a step and never had the plate patience to mitigate the erosion of his skills. At the same time it appears that repeated injury has taken its toll on Chase Utley. Of the Phillies projected 2012 position players only Hunter Pence (28), John Mayberry Jr. (27) and Domonic Brown (24) are under the age of 30.

Philadelphia’s rotation is still a murderer’s row, with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee all perennial Cy Young award contenders and Vance Worley providing stability as a number four starter. Still, Halladay (34) and Lee (33) aren’t getting any younger. Hamels is slated to become a free agent after the 2012 season at the age of 28. Given his performance and age he should command 4 to 5 years at around $20 million per year, and the Red Sox and Yankees figure to be involved in the bidding.

All these factors point to one conclusion: 2012 is the last year where the Phillies should be considered World Series contenders. Hamels will likely leave after the season and the Phillies don’t have a great bumper crop of prospects to replace aging stars like Utley. Inside their division, Atlanta has a wealth of young pitching in top prospects Mike Minor, Arodys Vizcaino, Julio Teheran, and Randall Delgado to go with an already solid rotation with Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson. The Braves need another bat before they can be considered a real threat to Philadelphia, but they just freed up a bunch of money by trading away Derek Lowe. Add to that the Marlin’s apparent newfound willingness to spend money to improve their infield and the Phillies’ reign atop the NL East appears tenuous.

It’s a testament to the Phillies’ current talent level that they’re still the hands down NL favorites for 2012, but the fact is they haven’t positioned themselves well for the future and one wonders whether they have the firepower in their lineup necessary to compete with top-tier AL teams. The Papelbon signing just appears to be another symptom of an organizational problem.


2 Responses to How Not to Rebuild a Baseball Team

  1. toosoxy says:

    We’ll see. I think Paps is going to do really well in the NL.

  2. mweisburgh says:

    In the spirit of how NOT to build a baseball team, the Philly’s have nothing over the Mets. That’s probably their one strength: they know how to not build a team better than anyone.

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