As I wrote earlier this week, I'm not a big fan of paying big money for closers, as I think smart organizations can find alternative means to building a bullpen. The Phillies, of course, have deep pockets and there is little doubt Papelbon is one of the best relievers the game ... right?
Well, how do you define "one of the best"? The Phillies are defining him as "second-best" (behind only Mariano Rivera), at least in terms of salary. But here are Papelbon's rankings over the past three seasons among all relievers with at least 150 innings:
19th in batting average
16th in on-base percentage
18th in slugging percentage
23rd in ERA
OK ... so maybe he isn't quite as awesome as we think. To be fair, he was better in 2011 (at least up until the final game) than 2010 and 2009, throwing more strikes and posting the second-best strikeout rate of his career. Overall, however, he wasn't as dominating the past three seasons as his first three seasons. If he pitches like he did in 2011, he's an elite closer; if he pitches like he did in 2010, when he seemed reluctant to challenge hitters and he served up seven home runs, he's less than elite.
So why the $50 million contract? Well, he's a proven Closer, with a capital C. He has the fifth-most saves over the past three seasons and the second-most ever of any pitcher in his first seven seasons. He's shown he has the necessary guts and fortitude to handle the ninth inning, unlike a mere middle reliever. Heck, he's even closed out a World Series. (Never mind that three of the past 10 World Series champs had unproven closers, including two rookies.) Of course, in the past six biggest games he's pitched in -- the 2008 and '09 playoffs and the final game of 2011 -- he's just three for six in save opportunities, as Red Sox fans well know.
OK, that's a little harsh. Papelbon is a very good pitcher. He's been handled carefully in his career (never pitched 70 innings in a regular season) and is as good a bet as any reliever to remain healthy the next four seasons. I don't think he makes the Phillies any better than they were in 2011 or pushes them any closer to a World Series title (Ryan Madson was excellent), but he's a safe, if expensive, bet to do the job well.
As for the Red Sox, they can go after Madson or be content to slide Daniel Bard into the closer role and use the Papelbon money to go after two or three middle relievers to rebuild a bullpen drastically in need of depth, or a rotation drastically in need of another arm. All things considered, losing Papelbon may end up being a positive for Boston.