When fans and baseball historians look back on this era of Philadelphia Phillies baseball, there will be much discussion over when this current golden age the team has been experiencing began to come to an end. Some will no doubt say it was when the team traded Jayson Werth to the Washington Nationals in 2010, and others may mention the loss in the National League Division Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011.
But if you want to pinpoint a moment where everything started to go wrong, you need look no further than the moment the Phillies signed closer Jonathan Papelbon.
The Phillies signed Papelbon once he became a free agent after spending the previous seven years with the Boston Red Sox and had proven himself to be one of the best closers baseball had ever seen. They signed him to a four-year, $50 million contract, despite the fact that there were some concerns his velocity was starting to slip and the team already had a competent closer in the form of Ryan Madson, who was also a free agent and ended up signing with the Cincinnati Reds.
Since joining the Phillies, Papelbon has been good, but nowhere near the dominant closer he was when he was with the Red Sox. He has blown some key saves and has seen the speed on his fastball, his predominant pitch, dip to mere mortal levels. And while he has started out 2014 strong with 14 strikeouts and a 1.76 ERA in 15.1 innings of work, most agree it’s not enough to warrant him being the highest-paid closer in MLB.
But more than that, it’s Papelbon’s attitude which has caused the most concern. He is known for speaking his mind, which would be fine except for the fact that whenever he does, it seems to be so he can throw another member of the Phillies under the bus. He has questioned his teammates’ desire to win and is not liked by the fans, who see him as arrogant and overpaid.
And then there is the infamous “I’m sore” incident.
This past May, the Phillies had a chance to sweep their division rival, the New York Mets, after Cole Hamels pitched a great game to finish with a 3-1 lead going into the eighth inning. But because Papelbon had made himself unavailable to pitch because he was “sore,” the bullpen had to come in and try to finish the job, which they couldn’t. It resulted in a 5-4 loss in 11 innings and left people wondering exactly why the Phillies are paying Papelbon so much money.
At the end of the day, Papelbon represents everything that is wrong with the Phillies right now. He is an overpaid, aging player who thinks he is way more valuable than he actually is and isn’t willing to put in the work needed to make the team better. Everyone saw that last year when the Phillies tried desperately to unload him at the trade deadline and no one would touch him. And no one would be surprised if they tried to trade him again this year.
When the Phillies signed Papelbon, they were looking to fix perceived problems at the closer position by throwing money at it, which rarely works and usually causes more issues than it solves. It is a strategy Ruben Amaro Jr. has tried repeatedly since becoming GM which has now put the team in the situation it finds itself in — one of the highest payrolls in baseball with nothing to show for it.
And for the most part, it all started with Jonathan Papelbon.