Over the weekend, the Phillies agreed to terms with reliever Jonathan Papelbon on a four-year, $50 million free agent deal that includes a vesting option that could take the total value of the contract north of $60 million. Philly was thought to be on the verge of a four-year, $44 million deal with incumbent closer and fellow free agent Ryan Madson, but the deal supposedly fell through due to a fifth-year vesting option that would have bumped Madson's potential earnings up to $57 million.
Setting aside for a moment the question of whether it makes sense to pay any reliever such a sum when he pitches, at most, five percent of his team's total innings, the Phillies' preference of Papelbon over Madson seems to make little sense unless the new Collective Bargaining Agreement scraps first-round draft pick compensation. There's little difference between the two in terms of recent and projected performance, and bringing in Papelbon could cost Philly's farm system needed young talent to boot.
Take a look at how Papelbon and Madson have pitched since 2009:
Papelbon: 199 IP, 10.8 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9, 2.64 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)
Madson: 191 IP, 9.6 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9, 2.74 FIP
Papelbon records more Ks, but Madson issues slightly fewer walks and gets taken deep a bit less often. Overall, the difference between Papelbon and Madson's fielding-independent numbers has been a tenth of a run per nine innings pitched.
Digging a little deeper, we find that Papelbon holds slight advantages in getting strikes and putting the ball in the zone, while Madson actually gets more swings and misses and more chases on pitches off the plate:
Papelbon: 66.8 Strike%, 28.2 Miss% 47.9 Zone%, 35 Chase%
Madson: 65.9 Strike%, 30.5 Miss%, 46.5 Zone%, 39.1 Chase%
You might be tempted to think that, as a result of pitching in the cut-throat AL East, Papelbon has faced a significantly tougher slate of hitters than Madson. But that doesn't appear to be the case. Take a look at their Opponent Quality OPS totals from 2009-2011, from Baseball Prospectus:
2009: .792 (T-52 among pitchers with 50+ IP)
2010: .765 (T-69)
2011: .752 (T-143)
2009: .781 (T-167)
2010: .765 (T-69)
2011: .756 (T-93)
Papelbon faced significantly tougher hitters in '09, but they were tied in 2010 and Madson had the harder go of it in 2011.
There's also the question of how Papelbon fits in at Citizens Bank Park. ESPN's Keith Law thinks Papelbon's fly ball-heavy approach will get him in trouble:
Papelbon has remade himself once after bottoming out with a fastball-only approach a few years ago, but even now he relies heavily on the hard but very flat four-seamer, which likely won't translate well to a good home run park in Philadelphia.
From 2009-2011, Papelbon has a 46 percent fly ball rate. He's all about the high heat:
Madson, by contrast, has a 32 percent fly ball rate. He's more apt to locate his fastball, cutter and changeup lower in the zone:
Considering that CPB increases homers by 16 percent for lefty hitters and 20 percent for righties (per StatCorner), it stands to reason that some of Papelbon's high heaters that died in the Fenway outfield or bonked off the Monster will leave the park entirely.
Past performance certainly matters, but what teams pay for (or should pay for) in free agency is future production. And on that front, Papelbon and Madson (both 31 years old) are barely distinguishable, according to The Hardball Times' Oliver projection system. Oliver forecasts 6.3 Wins Above Replacement for Papelbon over the next four years, compared to 5.7 for Madson. If the two were presidential candidates, we'd call that a statistical dead heat.
If the two can barely be told apart in terms of past and projected value, Madson apparently could have been had for a slightly smaller contract, and Madson is a better fit for CPB due to his ground ball ability, then the draft pick compensation that Papelbon may cost the Phillies makes their choice all the more curious.
Philly has emptied out its farm system in recent years in the quest for present wins, and it's hard to argue with the club's success. But, considering that Papelbon and Madson are near equals performance-wise, it seems like the Phillies gave up their first-round pick (31st overall) to Boston in the 2012 draft for nothing. Both Papelbon and Madson are Type A free agents, but it wouldn't have cost the Phillies any compensatory picks to retain their own free agent. Based on past research by Victor Wang, the Phillies punted a pick worth an average of $5-6 million.
This is where things get cloudy, though -- ESPN's Buster Olney reports that the new CBA may well eliminate first-round draft pick compensation:
In return, the players would get this concession from the owners -- there will be no first-round pick draft compensation. In recent years, teams have become increasingly reluctant to sign free agents tied to first-round draft picks, which has impacted the market for those players. There will continue to be draft pick compensations, but in some other form -- either in later rounds or in supplemental rounds.
If we accept the premise that the Phillies, a high-revenue club from whom every win makes a major difference in making the playoffs, were going to spend big bucks on a closer, their choice of Papelbon over Madson is slightly questionable if the new CBA allows them to hold on to their first-round pick and a bad move if they have to give it up. Given Philly's choice, I have to believe that they expect to hold on to that pick.