MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Phillies overpay for unpredictability

Castrovince: Phils overpay for unpredictability

Phillies overpay for unpredictability
MILWAUKEE -- This is what you do with money to burn and an itchy trigger finger. You give Jonathan Papelbon four years and $50 million -- with an extra 58 bucks tossed in for a little numeric novelty.

Beyond that "cinco ocho" addition (which works out to about 83 cents per paycheck), the signing announced Monday by the Phillies was not a particularly creative one.

But with the resources they're working with, they've long since passed the point where creativity is in order. They are a nightly sellout at Citizens Bank Park, and popularity has its perks. Strike while the iron is hot, or, more accurately, the wallet is fat.

No, the funny money involved here was not particularly interesting, even though this is the largest investment ever made in a relief pitcher. What was interesting was the exact path to Papelbon -- one that clearly ran right over Ryan Madson and one that could define a crazy closer's market, just as baseball's General Managers Meetings convene here at the Pfister Hotel.

Begin by understanding the obvious: It's a shaky strategy to sign any reliever not named Mariano Rivera to a multiyear contract, and it's especially brave to make it a four-year pact.

Want evidence? Just look at the last 10 relievers to get a contract of four years or more: Mariano Rivera (2001-04), Matt Mantei (2001-04), Jason Isringhausen (2002-05), Steve Karsay (2002-05), Billy Wagner (2006-09), B.J. Ryan (2006-10), Justin Speier (2007-10), Scott Linebrink (2008-11), Joe Nathan (2008-11) and Francisco Cordero (2008-11).

Of those, only the Rivera, Isringhausen and Cordero deals could be deemed some semblance of a success.

Nathan, Ryan and Wagner, meanwhile, all required Tommy John surgery. Rivera, naturally, was nails (except for Game 7 of the 2001 World Series), but even he hasn't received more than a three-year guarantee in the years since.

So, yeah, the history is spotty, at best.

But why should that scare the Phils? Despite some public sentiments about the need to get younger, it's clear they are a club built for the present tense, and the win-now mentality that went unrewarded in 2011 will return with even greater gusto in '12. Time is of the essence, because age, no matter what the late singer Aaliyah once told you, is more than a number. And if you have money to spend, spend away.

If you're playing the percentages, the smart money is on Papelbon flaming out -- either through injury of ineffectiveness -- at some point over the course of this four-year pact. Still, Philadelphia wanted whatever false assurance is provided by the presence of a "Proven Closer," and you pay a premium for that service, with no guarantees received in return.

Yet even more amazing than the Papelbon contract is the fact that the Phillies nearly went the same distance with Madson, who has nowhere near as much experience in the role.

Madson and the Phils were reportedly close on a four-year, $44 million pact before Philadelphia realized that if you're going to make a crazy commitment to a closer, it might as well be to one who has recorded the last out of a World Series. After all, the $6 million difference is chump change for a team with the financial might of the Phillies, especially when spread out over four years.

In terms of experience and perceived reliability, the Phils clearly got the better buy. Papelbon has never been on the disabled list and has spent six seasons closing for a high-profile team in the game's most daunting division. He performed three of those seasons -- 2006-08 -- at a truly elite level, and, at 31 in 2012, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he could return to that level again. Madson, also 31, has not even one full season as a closer under his belt and, while he's avoided catastrophic injury, he has missed time with shoulder and oblique issues in the past.

Of course, both arms have survived in bandbox ballparks, though one statistic that might be of note in the Papelbon vs. Madson debate is fly-ball percentage. Papelbon's 44.1 career mark is significantly higher than that of Madson's 32.0 percentage. That's worth keeping in mind.

That said, the Phillies got what they wanted, and they especially don't mind paying for it when you consider how cheaply the rest of their relief corps can be assembled. But in striking early and outrageously on Papelbon, they set the bar awfully high for the rest of the closers available in a crowded market. And it will be interesting to see if any other four-year pacts are handed out, as a result.

Madson, obviously, hopes to get one. The Red Sox and Rangers (assuming Neftali Feliz heads to the rotation) are expected to be motivated buyers with big bank accounts, and Madson might be just the man they're looking for, spurned as he might be by his former employers.

When asked what happened with Madson and the Phils on Monday, the ordinarily talkative agent Scott Boras had little to say.

"They had to make a choice," Boras said, "and we're just moving forward."

Boras will move forward with, arguably, the most attractive reliever on the open market. But Heath Bell and Cordero are both out there, as well, and those three currently comprise the upper level of the available ninth-inning talent. The 34-year-old Bell and Madson can be counted as prime-year options, while the 37-year-old Cordero, coming off his best single-season WHIP (1.019) in nearly a decade, is still a viable closing candidate, as well.

Beyond that, you have at least six other names worthy of ninth-inning consideration in Nathan, Matt Capps, Jonathan Broxton, Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch and Francisco Rodriguez. All have had injury issues that will affect their market worth, but all will get looks, with the Reds, Twins, Mets, Marlins and Blue Jays joining Boston and Texas among the potential buyers.

How much will the Papelbon contract affect those that follow? Well, that remains to be seen, of course. The Phillies could be an outlier, given their payroll situation and their penchant for acting hastily. Or they might have just set the tone for another ridiculous relief market.

In 2006, with a new collective bargaining agreement in tow, teams handed out 11 multiyear contracts totaling 28 years and $97.3 million to relievers, and all they got out of it, according to Baseball-Reference.com, was zero Wins Above Replacement. Things calmed down and executives seemingly wised up for a few years, but then last year, the spending spree began again, with no less than six setup men getting deals worth $12 million or more.

That's big money for an area of such unpredictability, even by sporting standards.

"It's a very volatile area," Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said. "Established closers, there's some history with what they've done. They're not as apt to have big peaks and valleys. But the rest of them, year to year, they can be hot and cold."

With Papelbon signed and Madson spurned, the relief market waters have officially heated up. The Phillies were the first daredevils to jump in headfirst, but will they be the last?

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.