Saturday, November 20, 2010

Papelbon to Request $11.5M in Arbitration

According to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon is “poised” to request a salary in the area of $11.5M in arbitration.  This would be a raise of slightly more than $2M over his 2010 salary.  While his request might seem a little crazy on the surface, within the context of salary arbitration, it’s not.  As salary arbitration is currently set up, it essentially guarantees every player eligible will get a salary increase.  There are exceptions to the rule, but they’re rare (i.e. players coming back from severe injuries or extreme ineffectiveness).  Papelbon and his agent know this, and they’re using this information to maximize his 2011 compensation.

The big problem with Papelbon’s salary request is that he doesn’t deserve it.  By nearly every statistical measure, Papelbon’s performance has been in a state of decline since 2008.  Here’s a quick look at some his key indicators over the past five seasons: 

                  ERA      FIP       K/9       BB/9     K/BB     wFB      WAR    
2006          0.92      2.14     9.88       1.71      5.77      24.1       3.0
2007          1.85      2.45    12.96      2.31      5.60      23.3       2.2
2008          2.34      2.01    10.00      1.04      9.63      18.7       3.2
2009          1.85      3.05    10.06      3.18      3.17      14.3       2.0
2010          3.90      3.51    10.21      3.76      2.61       4.5        1.2

Papelbon was extraordinarily dominant early in his career.  He had an elite fastball, induced whiffs at a high rate, and controlled the strike zone by limiting walks.  He had a reputation for being the type of closer that could walk into a tense situation and get through it quickly with minimal drama.  In the postseason, he was even better.  Through 2008, he put together a scoreless streak of 25 consecutive innings.  Many in baseball saw him as the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera as the premier closer in baseball. 

In 2009, everything changed.  Papelbon’s pin point control disappeared (9.63 K/BB in 2008 to 3.17 in 2009).  His elite fastball, once dominant, appeared lifeless and predictable in the absence of a second quality pitch.  The effortless innings he used to routinely coast through were replaced with tense high wire acts in which he allowed multiple base runners.  Papelbon's year long struggles came to a head when he blew a crucial save in Game 3 of the ALDS.  After the game, he vowed to come back stronger, and return to his dominant form. 

That didn’t happen.  2010 started out much the same way as 2009.  This time, Papelbon's spotty control and penchant for high pressure situations was accompanied by a significantly reduced strikeout rate.  From opening day through July 31st, Papelbon's K/9 rate was 7.68 (26% below his career rate of 10.4 through 2009).  Due to his inability to establish an effective secondary pitch, hitters stopped biting at the fastball out of the zone, thus resulting in fewer strikeouts.  Only after Papelbon established his splitter as an effective pitch did his strikeout rate begin to rebound.  Over the course of the final two months of the season, Papelbon put up a K/9 rate of 14.83, which brought his year end average closer in line with his career rate.  Despite his rediscovered ability to miss bats, he had difficulty getting batters out on balls in play.  Papelbon's struggles were two fold:  (1) he suffered from some rotten luck on balls put into play (.455 BABIP versus an xBABIP of .345, a difference of six hits allowed). and (2) he had a tendency to leave his fastball up in the zone caused him to give up an unusually high number of line drives (21% during Aug/Sept versus a season rate of 17.7%).  The elevated line drive rate caused Papelbon to not only allow more hits, but also more runs.  The final two months of the season was when he had four of his career high eight blown saves.

This brings us back to the question of Papelbon's value.  Relief pitchers, due to the number of innings they pitch, are very rarely worth salaries above $4-5M, including most closers.  Even elite closers are rarely worth a salary of $10M, let alone the $11.5M Papelbon requested.  The problem with Papelbon's request is that he hasn't been an elite closer since 2008.  Going into his age-30 season, Papelbon is exhibiting multiple signs of decline.  His walk and home run rates are on the rise; his strikeout rate is somewhat unstable; and his fastball is considerably less effective than it was in 2006 (lost 19.6 runs in value in five seasons). 

Going into the offseason, the Red Sox front office is faced with a pretty complex dilemma.  It appears they have three options:
  1. Re-sign Papelbon, and go into 2011 with him as the closer; allow him to leave as a free agent and re-coup two compensation draft picks
  2. Trade Papelbon (preferably prior to arbitration), and go into 2011 with Daniel Bard as the closer
  3. Non-tender Papelbon, and allow him to leave as a free agent; Bard as closer
If I were the Red Sox, I'd start out by trying to make Option 2 work.  If I found a trade that was reasonable, I'd trade Papelbon, and install Bard as the closer in 2011.  If I couldn't find a good trade, I'd go with Option 1.  While Papelbon isn't likely to be worth the $10.5-11.5 salary, he's still one of the 10-15 best relief pitchers in the game.  Plus, it would allow the Red Sox to reprise the great 1-2 punch (with Bard and Papelbon) at the back end of the bullpen that few teams could rival.   If they could put together a deep bullpen around them, it would make Papelbon and Bard that much more effective.  

Lastly, Papelbon is practically guaranteed to be a Type A free agent after the 2011 season.  If/When the Red Sox allow him to walk as a free agent, he'll bring back two compensation picks (a first round and a sandwich pick).  By taking Papelbon's projected value, and combining it with the value the Red Sox will receive via the two draft picks, we find that the combined value is likely to match or exceed his 2011 salary.  This is what makes Option 3 fairly risky.  As I see it, the best way for the Red Sox to get the most value out of Papelbon is to either trade him prior to the season, or re-sign him and recoup the draft picks after 2011.  Either way, it should be pretty interesting to see how the situation progresses as it could have an effect on how teams deal with comparable closers in the near future.

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