Jonathan Papelbon, in large part because he’s an obvious trade piece on a team looking to make trades, has been the subject of vague rumors for a long time. We’ve discussed him a handful of times in relation to the Cubs’ back-end bullpen needs, but there has never been a hard-and-fast connection between the two teams on Papelbon.
Ken Rosenthal reports that the Phillies have recently engaged in trade talks on Papelbon with two teams: the Blue Jays and the Cubs. Moreover, Rosenthal says that the Cubs’ interest is still active even after signing Rafael Soriano.
Although Papelbon is no longer the fireballer he was back when he was with the Boston Red Sox – and the Cubs’ current front office – but he still is a highly-effective back-end reliever. He currently sports a 1.13 ERA, a 2.36 FIP, and a 2.75 xFIP, with a strikeout rate just under 30% and a walk rate barely above 6%. In short, the 34-year-old righty has been excellent, and you should very much want him in the Cubs’ bullpen as soon as possible.
But, of course, the cost is the thing. Papelbon is making $13 million this year, and he’s got a $13 million vesting option for 2016 that kicks in if he finishes (i.e., pitches the final inning – it’s a workaround incentive because you can’t have incentives on stats like saves) 26 more games this year. At his current pace, that will happen later this year, making him much less attractive. He’s good, but I doubt many teams want a 35-year-old reliever next year for $13 million.
So the Phillies are trying to make up for that with some cash (and could even get creative by including more, conditionally, if his option triggers), which makes projecting the cost to acquire him tricky. Obviously, the more cash the Phillies include, the more Papelbon would cost in players/prospects.
From where I sit, if the Cubs acquired Papelbon and didn’t make him their closer – they’ve got something of an open competition right now – they wouldn’t risk the 2016 option triggering, and would have a great late-inning, high-leverage reliever. But would they have a pissed off reliever, who’s known to be a little … unpredictable?
Given the financial obligations, I doubt the Phillies will get a ton for Papelbon unless they include cash to cover a portion of the 2016 option, if it does vest. If they make him a, say, $6 million reliever next year? With a trading team being on the hook for the remainder of his salary this year, too? Well, then they can probably get a very good, but non-elite prospect, or perhaps a couple good prospects with Rule 5 timeline constraints (i.e., they’re about to get squeezed after this season due to Rule 5 eligibility).
Rosenthal suggests that the Phillies may prefer to deal with the Blue Jays. We’ll see where this goes.
(Given the Soriano addition and the Papelbon pursuit, you have to wonder whether optimism about a Neil Ramirez return in the first half, or even before August, is waning.)