Inside the Phillies: Giles' emergence clears way for Phillies to trade Papelbon

Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon celebrates after the Phillies defeated the Miami Marlins 5-4 in a baseball game, Thursday, July 3, 2014 in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon celebrates after the Phillies defeated the Miami Marlins 5-4 in a baseball game, Thursday, July 3, 2014 in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (AP)
Posted: July 07, 2014

The incentive to trade Jonathan Papelbon was appealing even before Ken Giles pulled down the brim to his red Phillies hat and confused major-league hitters with his fastball-slider combination. Papelbon, before the 2012 season, signed the richest deal ever awarded to a closer - an anachronistic agreement for a position devalued by the rest of baseball.

The Phillies, not surprisingly, explored ways to escape the four-year pact before the second season ended. But Papelbon carried too many red flags, and a trade last summer was never consummated. Nor was a match found last winter when the Phillies shopped Papelbon, even as general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. offered to assume a large share of the money owed to the 33-year-old reliever.

The conditions are favorable this month for a divorce. Papelbon, who once proclaimed he "didn't come here for this," is pitching as if he wants to find a home with a contender. He made adjustments to compensate for a decline in fastball velocity. His strikeouts are down and walks are up, but Papelbon has endured.

He entered the weekend pitching better than ever for the Phillies. His last 15 innings - seven of which came in save situations - through Thursday produced a 0.60 ERA and 15 strikeouts with zero walks. Scouts have noted Papelbon's depleted stuff and his persistent luck. Three months of results, though, count for something.

There is $19 million (at least) to be paid on Papelbon's contract. He could guarantee another $13 million for 2016 with a vesting option tied to games finished. That is a palatable number for the Phillies to share with a contending team in need of late-inning stability. Potential suitors include San Francisco, Detroit, Baltimore, and the Los Angeles Angels.

Amaro could make such a trade, perhaps procure a midlevel prospect, and sell the deal on Giles. He is the team's future closer. Last summer, the Phillies general manager said he was in no rush to jettison Papelbon because the team lacked a clear replacement. That excuse has passed.

Pitching coach Bob McClure, who survived 19 seasons as a major-league reliever, sees the sort of attributes teams demand of closers in the 23-year-old Giles.

"Kenny has done well," McClure said. "He looks confident out there. He looks like he knows what he can do. To me, confidence is probably the biggest asset anyone can have."

One of McClure's best coaching successes was Joakim Soria, and McClure said that Giles reminds him of the former Royals closer. Kansas City selected Soria in the Rule 5 draft before the 2007 season. He earned a bullpen role despite little experience above single A. McClure recalled how the Royals eased Soria into important roles, just as the Phillies have done with Giles.

Soria, then 23, became Kansas City's closer less than a month into his big-league career. He occupied the role for a month while veteran closer Octavio Dotel recovered from a strained rib cage muscle. Dotel closed for all of June and July as the Royals shopped him.

Kansas City general manager Drayton Moore asked McClure if he thought Soria could handle being a full-time closer. McClure, sure of his answer, still wanted to check with the pitcher.

"So," McClure said, "we're in the outfield and I say, 'Jack, do you think you could close?' And very unassumingly he said, 'Yes, I do.' So I told Drayton exactly what he said. And we trade Dotel two days later."

Soria converted 160 of his 180 save opportunities with a 2.40 ERA in five seasons as the Royals closer. He made $14.8 million during that span; the Royals signed him to a club-friendly three-year, $8.75 million contract that included three club options. The alternative to sinking money into a veteran closer - as the Phillies have done with Papelbon - is to find a young arm who can handle the situations, buy out his arbitration years and a few free-agent seasons, and build a bullpen around him.

That is more common in the game, although not simple. Giles' future is unwritten; nine major-league appearances are not enough to anoint him. He must stay healthy, make adjustments, and learn to cope with failure. Manager Ryne Sandberg said Giles' presence is what impressed him the most at first. Presence is another buzzword associated with a pitcher's ability to handle ninth-inning pressure.

"Giles seems confident and convicted in what he does," McClure said. "You put those two together, you have a big-league pitcher."

You might have a big-league closer, too, and that is all the more reason to trade Papelbon.


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb

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