As Papelbon struggles, Phillies' need for teardown intensifies
Jonathan Papelbon isn't making it any easier for the Phillies to reverse their slide into mediocrity, and he may be making it tougher to deal him as well. On Monday night against the Padres, for the fourth time in eight days, he blew a save opportunity. Whereas the Phillies' bats bailed him out against the Nationals (June 17) and Mets (June 22), they were unable to do so this time, losing 4-3 in 10 innings.
Papelbon's outing undid the eight shutout innings thrown by Cliff Lee, though to be fair, he had help. With a 3-0 lead and Lee's pitch count at 109 (two pitches past his average this year), manager Charlie Manuel sent his starter back out for the ninth inning, a reasonable enough choice, but one that quickly backfired. Three pitches later, Lee had allowed a single to Carlos Quentin and a double to Chase Headley, so Manuel summoned Papelbon, who entered in mid-inning for just the second time this year and the third time in the last 12 months.
Papelbon's first pitch was blooped into centerfield by Kyle Blanks for a two-run single, and his fourth pitch hit Jesus Guzman. He induced Yasmani Grandal to ground into a double play, but fell behind Mark Kotsay 2-1, and then his changeup squirted underneath Carlos Ruiz, allowing Blanks to score the tying run on the passed ball. The Phillies put Jimmy Rollins on third with one out in the 10th but couldn't score, and then Blanks drove in the winning run off Justin De Fratus in the bottom of the 10th.
It's been a rough stretch for the 32-year-old Papelbon, who has been one of the game's top closers since 2006. Through the end of May, he had converted all 11 save opportunities while allowing just three runs and walking three hitters in 20 2/3 innings. Since the calendar has turned to June, however, he's blown four of seven chances while allowing six runs and three homers in nine innings. The homers have been part of a trend since he joined the Phillies last year via a four-year, $50 million deal; he's yielded 1.1 per nine with his new club, compared to 0.6 per nine against the Red Sox. Of more concern, he's striking out just 7.9 hitters per nine, down from 11.8 last year and 11.0 from 2006-2012. His fastball velocity is down 2.5 MPH from two years ago according to BrooksBaseball.net, while his swinging strike rate has declined from 26 percent to 18 percent in that span.
The Phillies have lost two of Papelbon's recent blown saves, and while they're 10-12 this month, they've lost 10 out of their last 15 games to fall to 36-41, eight games behind the Braves in the suddenly mediocre NL East — where only Atlanta is above .500 — and nine games back in the wild-card race. Even that record may be camouflaging just how bad the Phillies are. Their −59 run differential is the league's second-worst, better than only the Marlins. Their once-vaunted offense is scoring just 3.68 runs per game (12th in the league), and they can't even use the loss of Chase Utley, who missed four weeks with an oblique strain, as an excuse. While the 34-year-old second baseman's .267/.328/.472 line places him among the team's three most productive hitters, the team went 14-14 and scored 4.00 runs per game without him, meaning that they've averaged just 3.49 per game when he's been available. Meanwhile, the pitching staff is allowing 4.44 runs per game (13th in the league), with Roy Halladay possibly out for the season after shoulder surgery, and Cole Hamels holding a 4.50 ERA and a 2-11 record through 16 starts.
The Phillies came into the season with a $159.5 million payroll, the game's third-highest behind the Yankees and Dodgers, but general manager Ruben Amaro Jr has maintained his stance that he's not trading anyone. Last year, he dealt Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence and Joe Blanton in late July and early August, only to rebound from a 45-57 record with a 36-24 finish, ending the season right at .500. While that allowed the team to save a bit of face, it has emboldened Amaro to believe in yet another poorly assembled squad. Of their 10 most used players in terms of plate appearances, six are over 30, and of the other four, trade acquisition Ben Revere (.275/.309/.308) and free agent signing Delmon Young (.222/.278/.389 with high comedy on defense) have both been part of the problem.
Utley, 34-year-old Carlos Ruiz (.257/.293/.286 in just 75 PA due to a PED suspension and a hamstring strain) and 36-year-old Michael Young (.282/.345/.398) are pending free agents, but at the moment only the first of those three would fetch a whole lot that could help restock a downtrodden farm system that Baseball America ranked 23rd coming into the year, and Baseball Prospectus 24th. Beyond that trio, the Phillies have more than $100 million committed to six players for next year, and $86.5 million committed to four players for 2015: Lee ($25 million a year), Ryan Howard ($25 million a year), Hamels ($23.5 million a year), Papelbon ($13 million a year), Rollins ($11 million for next year) and Mike Adams ($7 million for next year), the latter of whom is facing season-ending shoulder surgery.
Barring another TARP-like bailout from the Dodgers, dealing any of those players would likely require the Phillies to work around no-trade clauses in the cases of Utley, Howard and Lee, and to eat a significant chunk of the remaining money, a dish for which Amaro has shown he has little appetite. That's because doing so would be admitting that he made serious mistakes, like vastly overpaying for a closer just as the industry was realizing the silliness of doing so, jumping the gun on renewing the contract of an aging first baseman with platoon and defensive issues, and holding onto a shortstop who's well into his mid-30s decline. Where it's understandable how Amaro could overpay to preserve the core players from the Phillies' 2007-2011 run of NL East titles, Papelbon lacks that connection to their glory days. In spite of his recent hiccups, he's still a good closer, though his run as an elite one may be over with the decline of his ability to miss bats. If Amaro passes up the opportunity to unload him prior to July 31, he's a fool, and if he does something besides stage a fire sale next month, it will do more to prolong the Phillies' problems than to end them.