Relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon of the Boston Red Sox walks off the field after giving up the winning run in the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 28, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Orioles defeated the Red Sox 4-3. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
When last we saw Jonathan Papelbon throw a baseball, he was blowing a two-out, no-one-on-base ninth-inning lead in Baltimore that cost the Red Sox a chance (at the very least) at a tiebreaker game to make the 2011 postseason. It was Papelbon's second blown save against the Orioles in the season's final eight games; win both of those and the Red Sox are in the playoffs and Theo Epstein and Terry Francona might still be employed in Boston.
To which I say, are the Phillies out of their minds? This is after the Phillies and the man who was their closer in 2011, Ryan Madson, couldn't agree on a reported four-year, $44 million deal. And they just finished paying their ex-closer Brad Lidge $36 million from 2009-2011, for which they got one year (2009) of awful closing (a 7.21 ERA and 1.81 WHIP; somehow he saved 31 games), one year (2010) of decent closing and one year (2011) of injuries followed by acceptable setup work.
This is the trap many teams have fallen in over recent years: find the best "closer" available and sign him to a big-money deal, only to see him fall flat on his butt. The closer position, with all due respect to Mariano Rivera, is overrated; often, the "closer" comes in with a three-run lead in the ninth inning and posts a "save" for getting three outs in a low-leverage situation, where his predecessor, the setup man, had to bail the team out of a tough jam in the seventh or eighth inning. But managers reflexively call on the "closer" in the ninth inning no matter the situation or how well the previous pitcher did; it's a mantra of modern managing that has men like Papelbon getting contracts that seem far more than they're worth.
The recent past is littered with examples of pitchers signed to moderate or big money deals, only to then completely flop. Here are just a few:
Kevin Gregg, signed by the Orioles for two years, $10 million in December 2010. Baltimore got 22 saves from him, but also an ugly 4.37 ERA and 1.64 WHIP.
Brandon Lyon, signed by the Astros for three years, $15 million in December 2009. He closed acceptably for a year, then got hurt and posted a ghastly 11.48 ERA and 2.40 WHIP before being shut down for the rest of 2011.
Danys Baez, signed by the Orioles for three years, $19 million in November 2006. He posted three saves in two years for them with a 5.02 ERA.
Billy Wagner, signed by the Mets for four years, $43 million in November 2005. Wagner was pretty good when healthy, but he was only healthy for about half this contract; he wound up finishing it with the Red Sox.
And perhaps worst of all, Mel Rojas, signed by the Cubs for three years and $13.75 million when that amount of money really meant something, in December 1996. He was so bad that he lasted four months with the Cubs (six blown saves in 19 opportunities) and was dumped on the Mets in August 1997 and proceeded to give up five runs in his first Mets appearance.
About the only deal like this that has really worked out is the four-year, $46 million contract that Francisco Cordero has just completed with the Reds; Cordero stayed healthy and posted 150 saves over the four years with Cincinnati, and helped the team to the postseason in 2010 (though he didn't appear in any of the games of the division series, in which the Reds were swept).
Many teams find closers through their farm system, as the Cubs did with Carlos Marmol (though they may have overpaid to keep him before the 2011 season), or the White Sox did when they grabbed Bobby Jenks off the Angels' scrap heap. The Rays signed Kyle Farnsworth to a relatively cheap deal before 2011, and he put together a solid season as a closer. The reality is that the shelf life of most closers is about five or six years; since 1990, when the current (ninth inning with the lead only) usage of closers became common, here is the list of pitchers who have had more than six seasons of 30+ saves:
Cordero and Joe Nathan have six such seasons; pretty much every other closer who was once considered "top-of-the-line" has flamed out, in no particular order: Randy Myers, Robb Nen, Armando Benitez, Jonathan Broxton... I could go on, but you get the point.
Jonathan Papelbon has six 30+ save seasons and plenty of playoff experience. But there's beginning to be a bit of mileage on that arm; he'll be 31 in less than two weeks. By the time this deal reaches its midpoint, the Phillies are probably going to be wishing they hadn't done it.