Inside the Phillies: In picking Papelbon, Amaro was true to form

Newcomer Laynce Nix can wallop righthanded pitching, but he also will have to demonstrate he can be an everyday player.
Newcomer Laynce Nix can wallop righthanded pitching, but he also will have to demonstrate he can be an everyday player. (MIKE ZARILLI / Getty Images)
Posted: February 19, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. - For the third straight offseason, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. revealed his infatuation with pitching by acquiring the best available arm.

That's what Amaro did when he pulled off a three-team trade that brought the Phillies Roy Halladay from Toronto after the 2009 season. And that's what he did again when he brought back Cliff Lee as a free agent in December 2010.

Those moves were cause for much celebration. In fact, the news that Lee was returning to the Phillies nearly forced Mayor Nutter to come up with a parade route through Center City.

For some reason, the excitement level was not quite the same in November when word spread that the Phillies had signed veteran closer Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million deal. When the Phillies pitchers and catchers report for their first workout Sunday at Bright House Field, Papelbon should not expect the same loud greeting that Halladay and Lee received the previous two years.

Maybe that's because the fan base was perfectly content with Ryan Madson as the closer after he put together an outstanding 2011 season. Compare Madson's statistics to Papelbon's from last season and there is no discernible difference.

Madson is only three months older and could have been retained for a lot less money even if the Phillies had paid him the four-year, $44 million deal that agent Scott Boras felt had been offered shortly after the free-agent market opened. Madson eventually had to settle for a one-year deal worth $8.5 million with the Cincinnati Reds and the Phillies would have gladly re-signed him at that price, but he was not going to return to Philadelphia in a setup role.

For some reason, the Phillies had their reservations about Madson in the closer role. That was apparent last April, when Brad Lidge went down and manager Charlie Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee decided Jose Contreras should get the first shot at replacing him as the closer. Boras assured Amaro then that Madson would be his closer by the end of the season and he was right. That, however, did not alter the general manager's thinking once it was time to put the 2012 Phillies together.

Amaro's decision was to pay top-shelf price for the most experienced and accomplished closer on the market, and that was not Madson. A lot of people would have rather seen the Papelbon cash spent on a quality bat, but other than Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Jose Reyes - none of whom made any sense for the Phillies - who was going to make that big a difference in the lineup?

Here's another thing to remember: The year the Phillies did actually celebrate a World Series title, the man who made the biggest difference and registered the final out was Lidge.

Papelbon, 31, did the same for the Red Sox in 2007, and he has been a model of consistency in the closer role since his college days at Mississippi State.

If the Phillies still had reservations about Madson's being their closer, they have no reason to be concerned about Papelbon. The only time in his career he came close to being anything other than a closer was before the 2007 season in Boston. Former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein (now with the Chicago Cubs) wanted him to be a starter. Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona (now with ESPN) wanted to keep Papelbon in his comfort zone.

"It was probably the one area where me and Theo disagreed," Francona said Saturday by phone. "I just thought the team we had in '07 that if we took him out of the bullpen I wasn't going to feel comfortable. Pap came to me and said, 'I'd love to be the closer on this team.' To Theo's credit, I don't think he wanted to do it, but he went with it and it worked out for the best."

Except for his final appearance in Boston - a blown save in Baltimore that sealed the Red Sox' monumental September collapse last season - almost everything worked out well for Papelbon during his first seven seasons.

"When you handed him the ball, it was a nice feeling," Francona said. "I probably have more affection for him than most guys because he came up through the system. I still remember the first time he pitched in a spring-training game for us.

"He missed the bus. He was a minor-league kid and he thought the bus was going to swing around and pick him up. He told me later that when he was in the windup throwing his first pitch he was thinking, 'My God, the manager thinks I'm a dummy.' "

Francona remembers what happened after that, too.

"This big kid from Baltimore was pitching and he drilled somebody and Pap was going out there the next inning," Francona said. "Nobody told him what to do."

Nobody had to.

"He threw the first pitch under Sammy Sosa's chin, then struck him out on three pitches," Francona said. "I almost pulled a hamstring running to the phone to call Theo."

After 219 regular-season saves and seven more in the postseason, Papelbon left Boston behind this offseason. He comes to Philadelphia with a World Series ring of his own and determined to get another.

"Going to Philadelphia will be good for him," Francona said. "He'll feed off that. He wants to be out there when people are yelling and screaming. The last thing in the world you'd ever say about him is that he's scared."

Inside the Phillies: 2011: Papelbon vs. Madson

Pitcher   W-L   ERA   Sv    BS    G    IP    BB    K

Papelpon   4-1    2.94    31    3    63    64.1 10    87

Madson    4-2    2.37    32    2    62    60.2 16    62

Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577, and @brookob on Twitter.


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