Inside the Phillies: Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon will be part of rebuilding process

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jonathan Papelbon has more going against him than for him if the Phillies want to trade him.
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jonathan Papelbon has more going against him than for him if the Phillies want to trade him.
Posted: August 02, 2013

Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon were the two guys Ruben Amaro Jr. had to have when they became free agents, and the Phillies general manager spent $170 million to get them. No free agent from outside the organization has ever been paid more than Lee, and no closer in baseball history has ever received more than Papelbon.

Both players, of course, said Philadelphia was the place they'd rather be when they joined the Phillies.

"Here I am," Lee said upon his return to the franchise in December 2010. "I never wanted to leave this place in the first place."

"I want to play for the Phillies, so let's make it happen," Papelbon told his agent before he signed in November 2011.

Now, you wonder whether the Phillies still want Lee and Papelbon and whether they still want to be part of the Phillies.

They were both still here at 4 p.m., when the non-waiver trade deadline passed Wednesday, but they were surely both available and willing to leave the Phillies' sinking luxury liner if some contender would have agreed to absorb their salaries while also surrendering some prospects.

That did not happen, so now the Phillies are stuck with Lee and Papelbon and vice versa.

Lee, recovering from a stiff neck that forced him to miss his last start, said Wednesday that he's still happy to be here.

"Yeah, I signed here to play, and that's what I want to do," Lee said. "I just want to win, and the way to do that is to play fundamental baseball. It's up to me to do everything I can to contribute to that, and that's what I'm going to do."

That was a far better answer than the ones provided by Papelbon on Sunday in Detroit when he was asked by an MLB.com reporter about the team and his situation.

"I definitely didn't come here for this," he said, adding that he thought the Phillies needed to make some changes "from top to bottom."

It may have been an honest answer, but it was also an awful one. No one wants to lose, but when Papelbon signed on for $50 million, it was a lot like taking a wedding vow - for better or worse, good times and bad, etc., etc.

His main focus should be on pitching effectively and doing everything he can to help the struggling young relievers who might be able to one day help the Phillies. That's what making Papelbon the highest-paid closer in baseball should get the Phillies. Michael Young, another player who was still here after the clock struck 4 on Wednesday, gave all the right answers about his situation throughout the process, and Papelbon would do well to follow the veteran infielder's example.

The thing that matters most now, however, is the effort to make things right again. If the Phillies are going to get this mess straightened out sooner rather than later, they are going to need Lee and Papelbon to play a huge role in the resurrection.

Look at it this way: If Lee were a free agent again after the 2013 season, how many teams would line up to get him on a two-year deal worth $50 million that includes a third-year option and a $12.5 million buyout?

There surely would be some, and they'd all be contenders. Lee, 34, agreed that the top of the starting rotation is the foundation for a rebound in 2014.

"The start [of the Phillies' strengths], I would say, is the starting pitching," manager Charlie Manuel said. "But that needs to be stronger, too. I'd say our starting pitching is the quickest of our areas to get top-notch. Then we have to build an outfield and a bullpen."

The opinion here is that the Phillies bullpen is the team's greatest weakness, but Papelbon is part of the solution and not part of the problem. Plenty has been written about Papelbon's decline in velocity in recent years, but much less has been said about his results.

They have not declined. His 2.21 ERA through Tuesday ranked ninth among baseball's 21 closers with at least 20 saves this season. His 0.93 WHIP (walks and hits per nine innings) ranked fourth. Hitters were batting .209 against him, which was tied for 10th among the closers in the 20-save club.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. failed miserably in his attempt to improve the bullpen this offseason, but he'll surely take another stab at it when this season comes to an end. At least he doesn't have to go looking for a closer, even if his current one is prone to saying some stupid things.


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @brookob.

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