Moving Papelbon

One day Jonathan Papelbon says he wants the Phillies to trade him, now, even sooner if they can.

And then another day Papelbon insists he only wants to close, and won’t be happy if he’s relegated to being a setup man in the caste system of big-league bullpens.

You have to admire Papelbon. He wants to be traded, and then publicly makes it harder for it to be done. Papelbon might have lost a few miles per hour off his fastball over the years, but he hasn’t lost any of his gumption. 

Over the All-Star break, Papelbon instructed his employer to “s–t or get off the pot,” when it came to trading him. If only public crudeness were an attribute, it would be so much easier to move the reliever who grabbed his crotch last year in full view of the home fans (what few there were).

But Papelbon wants to close and has a list of 17 teams he can block a deal to, according to CSN Philly. That makes moving Papelbon almost as difficult as watching him pitch (last week he entered a tie game with the Rays in the ninth, walked the leadoff hitter and had first-and-third, none out. He worked out of it with the help of a convoluted double play).

Papelbon pitches the ninth inning for the Phillies, which is a little like arriving at midnight for a party that ends at 10 p.m. By the time he shows up, the main event is usually over. 

Papelbon is perfect on save opportunities this year, converting all 17. What he’s lost on his fastball he’s added to his split-finger pitch, making the adjustments in his early 30s necessary to extend his career at a high level.

He has a 1.59 ERA and .597 OPS against in 2015, and has allowed just eight walks and three homers, and fanned 40 in 39.2 innings; for his career he has 342 saves, a 2.32 ERA and .579 OPS against, and 761 strikeouts in 667 innings. In 11 seasons, only once has his ERA risen above 2.94; in his four Phillies seasons, he has a 2.31 ERA, 123 saves and 252 strikeouts in 237.2 innings.

Those are numbers that can usually be easily traded, if the owner of them also didn’t insist his new team provide a gold-plated throne of a lawn chair in the bullpen inscribed with “Closer.”

To be fair Papelbon has his reasons for insisting on closing — $13 million of them, which is the value of the vesting option on his contract for 2016 if he finishes 100 games over 2014-15. Papelbon is at 86 now, and he won’t get 14 more if he’s pitching the eighth inning. Philadelphia has its critics, but $13 million might move many of them.

Of course, Papelbon couldn’t just come out and say why he wanted to close, because it’s not his style to negotiate in private what he can bluster in public.

Papelbon is most closely linked this week to the Nationals, whose closer Drew Storen (1.73 ERA, 29 saves, 44 strikeouts in 36.1 innings, .527 OPS) has been even better. But the Nationals’ bullpen is short and the front office’s memory is long — Storen has an 8.44 postseason ERA and was the pitcher on the mound with a two-run lead in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS. Would you trust your October to a pitcher who lost a deciding game to Dan Descalso and Peter Kozma? Mike Rizzo neither.

But there’s an even better reason to root for Mr. Papelbon to go to Washington. If you think he’s outspoken about wanting to be traded, wait until someone there asks about the guy living down the road in the White House. If precedent is any guide, Papelbon won’t hold back.

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