The Red Sox $11,000,000 “Papelbon” Question

The costs of his services now exceed his value so keeping him is a bad economic proposition. But this is no secret so you can’t really trade him and the costs of letting him walk are perhaps substantial. So the eleven million dollar question for the Red Sox front office this off-season is whether or not Jonathan Papelbon should be non-tendered and allowed to walk out the door.

I don’t mean to pin this entire discussion on the mess Papelbon served up last night. Because in Pap’s defense, it was meaningless mop-up work and that shouldn’t be relied upon to make serious decisions. But in light of last night, the issue is timely so it gets 1000 words this morning.

Here are the facts of the case:

*Papelbon is due to make roughly $11M in his final year of arbitration next season.

* Last night was the FIFTH time this year that Papelbon has absolutely been disrobed on the mound and I define that as “incidents where he gave up three or more earned runs in an inning or less of work.” Needless to say, that is probably three too many. And on top of that, there have been a handful of other worrisome appearances that don’t quite meet this standard.  

* His WHIP is up for the fourth straight year in a row and now sits at a pedestrian 1.194.  And his ERA, at 3.92, is more than double what it was in 2007 and 2009.  

* His walk numbers in 20010 are off his chart, a much higher percentage of the hits he allows this season are going for extra bases and nothing in the numbers suggests he is a victim of terrible luck. (FIP of 3.45 and xFIP of 3.75 suggest a little bad luck but nothing too serious.)  

* He leads the AL in blown saves with seven. (By the way, Daniel Bard is tied for second with six.)

So those are the facts of the case. Now on May 17th, on a morning after Pap got ripped by the Yankees, I claimed Papelbon should be dressed up for a July sale if the Sox were out of the playoff hunt.  By doing so, they could net something in return and prepare for 2011 without Papelbon’s eight-figure salary dragging them down. That didn’t come to pass as the Sox were alive at the trade deadline and couldn’t afford to weaken the pen any further by dealing ocho-cinco. But since May 17th, Papelbon has done little to bolster his case. In fact, his numbers have slipped slightly and the question is no longer whether Papelbon should be traded or even could be traded, but whether he should be tendered at all?

Based off his 2010 numbers, Papelbon will be seriously overpaid in 2011. And by “serious,” I mean he will make double his “2010” value. Now the Sox can afford to overpay at the margin but “double” is not at the margin. And when one thinks about how that money could be better spent, the idea of releasing Papelbon becomes more interesting.

Case in point, if Papelbon were allowed to leave, Daniel Bard would probably be elevated to the closer role. So who takes Bard’s spot? Well, for less than ten million dollars, the Sox would probably be able to bring in TWO solid set-up guys.  For instance, the Sox could try to grab Brian Fuentes or Scott Downs from the left side and Jaquin Benoit from the right side. The total cost of that would probably be $8M and if you add this duo to Bard, you have the makings of a pretty good pen. Moreover, Pap’s money could also be divided up on guys like Grant Balfour, Matt Guerrier and Jason Frasor …. all three of whom would probably cost less than 11M.

Now a Papelbon defender will surely claim that such a move is a risky proposition. That guys like these are often bad investments. Well, to that I ask …. is making an $11M bet on Papelbon next season any less risky?  

The moral to the story is the Sox spent about $16M on their pen in 2010 (not counting Wakefield). And if they were to spend a similar amount in 2011, they probably would get more bang if Papelbon and Okijima’s bucks were spent elsewhere. And that is because the Sox are in an enviable spot here. They have an anchor in Bard who is cheap. And while the cost of middle relief is not insignificant, it pales in comparison to the costs of bringing in a good closer. So at the end of the day, the Sox have an opportunity here to re-allocate their resources and perhaps end up with a tastier and less expensive pie.

Now the drawbacks of letting Papelbon go are two-fold. First, it’s a bet against a bounce back.  Given that Papelbon will be in a contract year, it is possible he recovers in 2011. Pete Gammons thinks this is in the cards, but looking at Pap’s career progression, a big move to the upside seems unlikely. And if there is a bounce, it certainly won’t be enough to justify $11M.  Maybe eight, but not eleven. Second, Papelbon will be a type A free agent after 2011 and by letting him go now, the Sox will be forfeiting their right to two compensation picks in the 2012 amateur draft.  Estimates vary on the value of future picks, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s call them worth between $3-4M in total. So theoretically, the Sox could bring number fifty-eight back, pay him 11 bucks, and get three or four back when the 2012 draft rolls around. This math makes it a tougher call.  

That said, I think the idea of not tendering Papelbon is VERY much in play. The beauty of having a player under control through arbitration is that a club isn’t locked in to a guarantee so if the player gets too expensive, the club can simply go in another direction. In this instance, I believe it is something that the Sox will consider and very likely will pursue.

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