Standing in stark contrast to a recent report that indicated there was nothing doing between the Cubs and Phillies on Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies.com’s Todd Zoleki is reporting that the Cubs, the Blue Jays and the Nationals are the three teams “most seriously pursuing” a deal for the Phillies’ closer.
To be sure, both of those reports could be accurate – this time of year, teams engage, disengage, and re-engage with relative rapidity. There are just five days left before the Trade Deadline, after all. We know that, at some point earlier this year, the Cubs were interested in Papelbon. We also suspect that the Phillies’ demands at that time were not palatable.
Papelbon, 34, is having one of the best seasons of his career as he seeks to be traded to a contender. His 1.59 ERA is his best in nine years, though the 2.94 FIP and 3.19 xFIP are much higher. Then again, those marks are in line with his career averages, and his ERA is typically much better than his FIP/xFIP (presumably due to a unique ability to give up much fewer homers per fly ball than the average pitcher (rare, but it happens), and his extremely low career BABIP against (.276)).
Few question that Papelbon is still a highly-effective reliever. Instead, the issue is the $13 million he’s being paid this year, and the $13 million he’s owed next year if he finishes just 14 more games this season. That option is just about a lock to vest unless he’s traded to a team that will not use him as the closer, and Papelbon does have the right to block trades to a number of teams (not including the Cubs, however).
If the Phillies want a decent return, they’re going to have to include cash – including cash on the condition his option vests – to defray some of that salary. The prospect return, then, on a deal for Papelbon is hard to predict, because it’s highly dependent on how much money is included in the deal.
Given Papelbon’s value, and the fact that he’s been extremely vocal about being traded, I think he’s going to be dealt by Friday. I also think, given his no-trade rights and the financial situation, it might be the kind of thing that goes down to the wire. If it happens to be a negotiation with the Cubs, you’ve got to like the Cubs’ position: Papelbon cannot block a trade to the Cubs (he’s indicated a desire to come to the Cubs anyway), Papelbon might block trades to other teams, and the Cubs don’t need Papelbon. Sure, he’s a great pitcher who would help shore up the Cubs’ pen. But the Cubs do have other fish available to fry, and, as a team pursuing the Wild Card, they’ve got just a little bit less incentive to pay big for upgrades than other teams.
In other words, I could see the Cubs being patient and waiting this thing out (maybe that’s exactly what’s been going on already). If the Phillies come to them, great. If not, fine.