It’s no secret that the Cubs bullpen has been struggling and with the team currently four games over .500, upgrades are necessary if they hope to continue stay above the mark. Jonathan Papelbon comes with a long track record of success in the closer position and owns the distinction of being drafted by the Cubs front office. Let’s take a look at what it may cost to acquire him at the trade deadline.
Jonathan Papelbon is the best closer available on the trade market and it’s easy to see why. With a career 2.33 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 10.4 K/9 and 336 saves that rank him 13th of all time, he’s been one of the most consistent closers of his generation. His arsenal includes a fastball, slider and splitter to get hitters out and at one time, the fastball used to top out right at 100 mph. However, at 34, the fastball has lost some zip and measures in the 94-95 mph range these days. That diminished velocity may have led to a two point dip in his K/9 over the past two seasons and is likely why he has started to rely more on his slider and use his fastball less as his out pitch. It’s almost puzzling why despite these trends that Papelbon has been experiencing a stunning return to form. In 21 games this season, he has 11 saves, a 1.23 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 11.0 K/9. However, his FIP at 2.48 suggests a correction could be coming.
Trade value aside, Papelbon is owed the remainder of his $13 million salary for this season and has a vesting option for 2016 that triggers with either 55 games finished this year or a combined 100 between the last two seasons (2014-15). He currently sits at 72 games and if he’s traded to a contender, he will likely meet the option requirements.
In addition to the option, his deal also has a no-trade clause with a list of 17 teams he can block deals too, so any trade offer will likely need his approval. Papelbon has had his share of dust-ups with the media in his time in Philadelphia and has publicly criticized the organization for not doing enough to win so there is some risk of the amount of desire that Papelbon may bring to a new team. He has not been shy for his affinity for Boston and his history with the front office would suggest that those issues would not pose much of a problem if traded to Chicago.
Jonathan Papelbon will likely have a fair amount of suitors and the Phillies should have their pick of the litter especially if they agree to kick in some money. An overpay and a promise of contention for the next two years is likely what would sway both Philadelphia and Papelbon to approve the deal. Recent deals for Huston Street, Joakim Soria and Francisco Rodriguez are the best examples to gauge what kind of value the Phillies could be looking for in a deal.
Last year near the deadline, the San Diego Padres traded closer Huston Street and RHP Trevor Gott to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for 2B Taylor Lindsey, INF Jose Rondon, RHP R.J. Alvarez and RHP Elliot Morris.
Like Papelbon, Street was in the midst of a strong season with a 1.09 ERA and 24 saves in 33 games and gave the Angels some cost control being signed into the following season at a reasonable $7 million per year. Gott was merely a depth throw in as he was not among the Padres top 30 prospects, but intrigued the Angels enough to be included in the deal. Lindsey was considered by many to be the Angels top prospect and was ranked 93rd overall on Baseball America’s top 100 list. Alvarez, a power reliever was a top 5 prospect and considered to be a closer of the future. Rondon, a top 15 prospect is a young shortstop with little to no power, slightly above average speed and a solid fielder, reports suggest he’s likely to be a utility infielder. Morris was a relative unknown as a fourth round draft selection the previous year. The Angels farm system was considered among the worst in baseball in 2014 to give the prospects received some context. Even considering that, the Padres got quite a haul for an oft-injured closer.
Also traded last year at the deadline was Joakim Soria, who was acquired from the Texas Rangers by the Detroit Tigers for RHP Jake Thompson and RHP Corey Knebel.
As was the case with Street, Soria had some cost control certainty with a $7 million club option that the Tigers exercised this year. Soria was to provide insurance for closer Joe Nathan who struggled all year in the closer spot and with the Tigers desperate to improve their bullpen in time for the playoffs they paid a steep price. Both Thompson and Knebel were top 10 talents in their low ranked system and weakened it further in the deal. Thompson, a 20-year old starter had recently been promoted to Double-A and reports suggested he had middle of rotation upside if he could develop a decent third pitch. Knebel was more advanced than Thompson and spent a brief period in the majors and projects as possible future closer. Like in the Street deal, the Rangers profited off of a desperate team and turned a potential free agent into a nice haul.
At the deadline in 2013, the Baltimore Orioles acquired Francisco Rodriguez from the Milwaukee Brewers for infielder Nick Delmonico. At 31, Rodriguez was lights out with a 1.09 ERA, 10 for 10 in saves after being signed to a minor league deal with the Brewers. The deal sent him to a surprising Orioles team to strengthen their bullpen for the stretch drive. Delmonico was a top 5 prospect in a mid-pack system, had experience at first, second and third and projected as a solid hitter with 10-15 home run power.
In any of these deals, acquiring teams had to give up a fair amount to nab these closers from their competitors. Every team gave up valuable young prospects for a veteran pitcher to pitch one inning for them. In every instance, a top 5 prospect was involved. Granted, all three teams mentioned in the above deals had less than stellar farm systems, but if the Cubs were to do the same, a couple of top 15 prospects may suffice. Even so, that means guys like 1B Dan Vogelbach, OF Billy McKinney, SS Gleyber Torres, RHP Jake Stinnett or LHP Carson Sands could have to be used to acquire a reliever the caliber of Jonathan Papelbon.
As the numbers show, Papelbon has pitched better as of late, but his advancing age and diminishing velocity make it debatable how much longer he can be an effective closer at the big league level. That extra year of control may make a deal for him attractive, but at the same time it could be a major albatross. The bullpen definitely needs help, but a deal for Jonathan Papelbon may make sense for a team a little closer to the playoffs and a lot less holes than the current Cubs ball club.
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