Nationals Sign Soriano…Is Papelbon a Steal?

Phillies' Closer Jonathan Papelbon could be the best value as a closer.Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported today that Rafael Soriano has signed with the 2012 National League East Champions Washington Nationals for 2-years at a reported $14 million a year. Soriano will join a bullpen already with Drew Storen & Tyler Clippard. Now the Nationals collapsed at the end of the playoffs with Storen unable to hold a 9th inning lead and get the last strike more than once. Soriano’s agent Scott Boras has gone to Washington a lot recently in terms of getting major contracts from them (Jayson Werth is obviously the top).

One of the big questions now with the prevelance of Baseball’s focus on Stats is what is the true value of relief pitchers and more focused on the importance of closers and how much of it is one pitcher having a very successful year and than unable to bring that return in the future. Brad Lidge went perfect for the Philadelphia Phillies the year they won the World Series (2008) and was rewarded halfway through that season with a contract extension. Lidge obviously never went perfect again and at the end of his contract extension in 2011 was injured and no longer a closing option when healthy. He moved onto the Nationals where he lasted closer to a quarter of a season before being injured and retiring.

Mariano Rivera is the prize jewel of closers with the all-time lead in saves and value to a franchise. The Yankees workhorse before injuring his knee last year has been the reliever who leads the way in terms of doing what he does best. That is to come in the 9th inning and finish a game. No one has more playoff saves than Rivera in baseball history.

Last year in 2012 the Phillies looked like they made a decent deal in re-signing Ryan Madson (another Scott Boras client) before the deal fell through for some reason and turned their attention to at the time Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon was a Type A free agent which meant the Phillies would have to give up their first round pick to sign him. Papelbon was signed to a 4-year, $50 million deal with a vesting option for 2016 of $13 million. The 2012 All-Star finished the most games out of every pitcher in the National League (64) and was 3rd in saves for the NL (38). He only blew 4 Saves and finished with a 2.44 ERA in the 70 games he pitched.

The rest of the league is an interesting case for the difference between “elite” closers and guys that have one great season and than that’s it for them. Jim Johnson of the Orioles led baseball with 51 saves. Before the season he had never saved more than 10. The Orioles paid him $2.625 million. The chances of him repeating that amount of saves? Slim. Fernando Rodney was the closer for the Tampa Bay Rays in his first season with the team and finished 2nd in the league with 48 saves. He hadn’t been a regular closer since 2009 with the Tigers. He also had a 0.60 ERA for the season in 76 games. Think that’s happening again? The Rays paid him $1.75 million.

Soriano was third in the league in saves but was signed as a setup man for the Yankees and stepped in for Rivera. He saved 42 games last year while making $11 million. In Jason Motte‘s first season as closing last year he finished 42 games for the Cardinals. His ERA has always been low last year his SO/BB ratio was at a career best 5.06 over 1 point higher than his career high before that.

Craig Kimbrel is one of only two relievers to be in the top 10 in saves the last two seasons. The other one? Jack Hannahan of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Of the top 10 in 2011 Jose Valverde, John Axford, J.J. Putz, Heath Bell, Francisco Cordero & Brandon League all did not finish as even closers for their teams in 2012. Since 2007 there’s only been one closer who’s been in the Top 10 of saves at least 5 times and that’s Papelbon.

Yes I won’t dispute that Papelbon will never be Mariano Rivera but at the end of the day if the Phillies didn’t have Papelbon last year do the Phillies even get back into the playoff race after the trade deadline? His second half ERA was a 1.67 compared to the first half of 3.34 showing as the season went on he got stronger and better. The Phillies gave up more leads in the 8th inning than any other team in Major League Baseball. If you take away all those games and count them as wins the Phillies get in the playoffs. Now it’s not realastic to say that Papelbon would’ve saved them all but I trust him more than anybody else in the bullpen to closer out a game.

Papelbon’s high salary has been a point of contention for the people who think Ruben Amaro Jr. is not doing a good job as Phillies General Manager. The draft pick they had to give up, the high salary, his comments to the media are all things people bring up but for what they’re paying Papelbon compared to the up and down nature of baseball’s closers it’s close to being one of the best value contracts (really compared to Ryan Howard‘s contract…) the team has on the books.

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Derek Sabato

Derek Sabato is a longtime Philly sports fan who founded HighPhive.com in July, 2012. His passion is the Philadelphia Phillies, Eagles & Flyers. Rebounding to be a 76ers fan. He also runs and operates the @TheHighPhive on Twitter and The High Phive page on Facebook. He's very vocal about his Philly sports and his opinions. You can also follow him on his personal Twitter @DerekSabato.