Papelbon still elite with move to Phillies
The makeover continues for the Boston Red Sox -- widely regarded 2011 American League favorites -- as Jonathan Papelbon, their closer for the past six seasons, including for the 2007 World Series-winning campaign, officially won't be back for 2012.
Friday, he turned in his Red Sox uniform for that of the 2011 National League favorites, the Philadelphia Phillies. According to ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, Papelbon agreed to a four-year, $50 million contract with the Phillies, pending a physical.
And with that, the Phillies, if not previously regarded 2012 World Series favorites, now inherit those honors.
Oddly enough, Papelbon's championship prospects scarcely change with his uniform nor do his fantasy prospects. How odd is that, considering how often a team change affects at least one?
Heck, Papelbon's stock might actually have improved as a result of the switch, if only because in Philadelphia he faces weaker competition for his job than in Boston. Remember, Daniel Bard was his setup man with the Red Sox, and from 2010-11 combined, Bard actually had a lower ERA (2.62 to Papelbon's 3.43) and WHIP (0.98 to 1.10). In Philadelphia, by comparison, Papelbon's primary competition comes from Antonio Bastardo and Jose Contreras, neither of whom is quite the closer prototype Bard is. That assumes, of course, that the Phillies don't re-sign Ryan Madson to return to the setup role he filled in 2004-05 and 2007-10.
But considering the circumstances of Madson's contract negotiations -- he reportedly had a verbal agreement on a four-year, $44 million deal earlier in the week -- that seems unlikely.
Strangely, coming off the worst season of his big league career in 2010, Papelbon followed it up with one of his better campaigns: his three blown saves tied for his fewest in a full season, his 91.2 percent save conversion rate was third-best (out of six seasons) and his 0.93 WHIP was third-best. He also corrected the two most disturbing trends about his 2010, gopheritis -- he allowed three home runs in 2011, down from eight -- and his walk rate -- he lowered it from a career-worst 3.76 per nine innings in 2010 to 1.40, his second-best single-season number.
Of course, one year hardly qualifies as a permanent "cure" for those problems, which are disturbing for a closer. Papelbon, who turns 31 in less than two weeks, could return to the downward career slope he was on or he could make the necessary adjustments and get by with slightly diminished skills, à la Francisco Rodriguez the past couple of seasons. The latter is key, remember, because Boston's Fenway Park is more expansive in right and right-center field than Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, so Papelbon certainly doesn't want to do something there like serve up a 61.9 percent fly ball rate, as he did in 2009.
It's those concerns that might cause Phillies fans to exclaim, "He's the next Brad Lidge," when they learn of Papelbon's arrival.
Lidge is a fair comparison only in one regard: his propensity to blow saves, because Papelbon could hover between five and eight blown saves in each of the four years of his deal, even if the rest of his performance is otherwise excellent. This is not a pitcher you should expect to have a minuscule ERA -- think an over-under in the 2.75-3.00 range -- but there aren't many better bets for 35 saves. These are the key differences between Lidge and Papelbon:
Lidge: 16 blown saves, 5.17 BB/9, 1.16 HR/9, 43.4 FB%
Papelbon: 14 blown saves, 2.80 BB/9, 0.68 HR/9, 51.1 FB%
Those are their numbers in the past three seasons combined, and regarding the blown saves, Papelbon's came in 52 more appearances (194-142). As for the fly ball rate, be aware that Papelbon's number in that category in 2010-11 alone is 45.2, meaning he has done a bit to lower it. Ultimately, if you want to discuss walks and gopheritis, Lidge is the king, Papelbon possibly a prince.
Sum it up and Papelbon remains the top-five-capable fantasy closer that he always was -- except when fantasy owners had increased fear entering 2011 -- with top-10 status potentially his basement on a team likely to be patient with any struggles. My projection: 36 saves, 2.95 ERA, 1.13 WHIP.
As for Bard, he's now the leading candidate to close for the Red Sox come next Opening Day, assuming they don't seek a more proven option on the free-agent market, such as Heath Bell, Francisco Cordero or Madson. Bard has been hyped the next superstar closer for at least two seasons now, and outside of a miserable September, during which his ERA was 10.64 with three blown saves and four losses -- all of which could have been the result of sheer exhaustion -- he has been rock-solid in a setup capacity.
Could Bard match or exceed Papelbon's fantasy numbers? Absolutely, but he'll come cheaper in drafts, perhaps around 12th-15th at his position if the job becomes officially his. My projection: 32 saves, 2.38 ERA, 1.03 WHIP.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.
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