Every time someone talks about the Phillies moving on in their rebuild, they bring up the Phillies $13 million closer, Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon looks good this spring; his fastball is close to its velocity from last year (91-93), and his secondaries look sharp (and sequenced). Yet it appears the trade talk has calmed down, and while the Phillies remain open to moving Papelbon they have not been actively shopping him, and their price remains high. This puzzles a lot of people, so lets walk through the potential scenarios. We will start with the assumption that the vesting option was not smart and makes this whole thing complicated.
Inflection Point #1: Trade Papelbon now?
Congratulations, you trade Papelbon! You have guaranteed his 2016 option, so now you have chosen to trade a 2yr/$26M contract. Given the risk inherent in relievers and Papelbon’s declining velocity, the Phillies are going to need to eat a large portion of the 2016 salary, so they now have that money locked in for next year. Most of this money is not going towards getting a better prospect, it is going towards getting Papelbon off the books. Let’s say Papelbon’s market rate is 2/16, the Phillies are already eat $10M to get there, meanwhile Ken Giles is likely to have a higher arb number, meaning you likely just lost money on the proposition of just having Papelbon walk. Now it comes to the prospect, how much more money needs to be eaten to get a good prospect given that the Brewers were only offering Jonathan Broxton? You might get something interesting, but you are likely to lose money on the whole venture, and at minimum you have guaranteed 2016 money.
Hold on to Papelbon –> move on
Inflection Point #2: Is Papelbon good?
Papelbon is not good or he’s hurt:
Well the option isn’t vesting, and you didn’t get a prospect, but you are also aren’t paying Papelbon next year. Take heart in the fact that you can spend that money on somebody useful and that the rest of your bullpen is young, cheap, and good.
Papelbon is good –> move on
Inflection Point #3: Is the option on pace to vest?
The market is now opened up to every team not on his no trade list. Papelbon at 2 months/~$6M is a much more manageable contract to work out a trade on with the Phillies eating most of the money and getting a nice player back. This is probably best case scenario, everyone but Papelbon wins (other than he doesn’t need to pitch here anymore).
Yes –> move on
Inflection Point #4: Can you make a trade?
You are in a similar position to what you would have been in had you traded him at the start of the season. Papelbon now is closer to $19 million of total investment, and while his next year may not look great at $13 million, he now has 4 more months of effective work under his belt. This longer track record and possibly a helping of desperation gets a better prospect than you would have gotten at the beginning of the year.
No –> move on
Inflection Point #5: Did the option vest?
Well you didn’t get anything, but you are done with Jonathan Papelbon, so that is a win.
You now have Papelbon on a 1 year $13M contract. You will pay more total in 2015 and 2016 than if you had traded him at the beginning of the year, but you have kept down Ken Giles’ arbitration. Given that Papelbon was healthy all year, he likely has good trade value, and now that he is only on a one year deal the return should be pretty good.
So after all of this, if you don’t trade Papelbon now, the “worst” case scenario is you have Papelbon all year and then never need to see him again after the year. The best case scenario is that you pay less in 2016 and get a better return than you would have gotten had you traded Papelbon at the beginning of the year.