clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Jonathan Papelbon's Phillies legacy

The Phillies brought in the game's best available closer when success was too far away.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

From their cobwebby corner of baseball, the Phillies pushed out closer Jonathan Papelbon to be their representative at the All-Star Game. Off he went to the sparkling metropolis of Cincinnati to join a bullpen that included Aroldis Chapman, Jacob deGrom, Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Gerrit Cole, and other young stars.

Surely, the Phillies' veteran hurler used the opportunity to impart some wisdom on the younglings.

What were you doing in the ‘pen?

"Snoozing," Pap said.

You get some good winks?

"Yeah," he said. "Until (Aroldis) Chapman made me get up out of my chair because he had to pitch on the mound I was sitting on."

NL manager Bruce Bochy wasn't feeling particularly charitable and Papelbon did not make an appearance in the game. Papelbon didn't like that. He also doesn't like the Phillies, or the Phillies' front office, and really doesn't like his own situation right now, having to pitch for the Phillies while his fate remains in the hands of their front office.

When you give an outspoken, volatile millionaire a contract, you should probably understand that the presser announcing his signing won't be the last time you'll hear from him. Papelbon has a wonderful history of unsolicited commentary as a Phillie, whether it be about Red Sox fans vs. Phillies fans, or Obama coming to take his guns. Naturally, he'll have some thoughts on his own future when the team he signed with to win is becoming less and less likely to do so.

Papelbon will go somewhere eventually, whether it be another team via trade or the White House to yell at the president. But as his time as a Phillie potentially winds town, let's take a look at the legacy he'll leave behind after the second phase of his career that really didn't pan out the way he'd planned.


"The Phillies are on the verge of inking Ryan Madson to a four-year deal worth $44 million, with an option for a fifth year at $13 million. While there have been rumbles that this deal isn't as close as it was presented to be yesterday, indications are still that this is happening."

--Over the Monster, November 11, 2011

This was the future we thought we had for the Phillies' closer.

Madson seemed to be transitioning into the role left behind by Brad Lidge, as he had proven he was clearly able to get three outs when he needed to, even defeating MLB Playoff Titan Cody Ross in a playoff situation.

And so, the Phillies and Madson were throwing paper airplanes at each other with various figures on them, or however negotiating works, until one morning, the morning after that OTM post was published, actually; we woke up and Jonathan Papelbon was apparently a Phillie.

Something shook up the proceedings so that the Phillies went with their even more expensive back-up plan. Perhaps they were aware of the health issues that would eventually sideline Madson's career for the next few seasons. Perhaps they had $50 million burning a hole in their pocket. But it was done.

The 2011 Phillies had been the best in franchise history, finishing with 102 wins in large part to a Rotation of the Gods. One notable weakness had been the offense, having been middle of the pack in most offensive categories - though they were 24th in doubles! - and experts seemed to agree that acquiring the top closer on the market would do little in the way of run support for the aces carrying the team.

But, acquire the 30-year-old closer they did, on a four-year deal with an option for a fifth, for a total of $50 million. Papelbon made sure he made $11,000,058 in 2012, because he wore No. 58 ("Cinco Ocho"), and because at that point some Phillies players were still wacky and not just burned out, angry, exhausted, or Ben Revere.

So, okay, we thought. Maybe the team will do something about the offense (they didn't)? Maybe the Phillies were doubling down on pitching and the plan was just to score 2-3 runs a game with a staff that could protect such a lead (it may have been)? Maybe everything would work out (it didn't)?

Papelbon didn't wait long to ignite the bridge between Philly and Boston by going straight for both cities' soft, vulnerable, stupid underbellies - the fans.

"The difference, I would say, between Boston and Philadelphia, is that, you know, I think that the Boston fans are a little bit more hysterical when it comes to the game of baseball. I'd say the Philly fans, I think they tend to know the game a little bit better, being in the National League, the way the game is played."

Yes, ask any baseball person and they'll speak at length on the universally revered intelligence for which sports fans in Philadelphia are known. "What a bunch of great geniuses," they'll say, a respectful grin forming.

So, we fluttered our eyelashes bashfully and told Papelbon "Oh, stop it, you."

It was nice. And Charlie Manuel didn't wait long to use his newest star, bringing in Papelbon to close out a 1-0 opening day game pitched marvelously by Roy Halladay. As Papelbon entered, he revealed his new choice in entrance music, Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls;" a necessary change from "Shipping Up to Boston" that he had used with the Red Sox. It was a subtle choice that maintained the intimidation factor while losing the unsubtle "name of the city in the song" aspect which Boston fans apparently needed, but Papelbon's awesome new smart fans in Philly did not require.

The Phillies' totally fine offense that day was provided by a Carlos Ruiz sac fly that scored Ty Wigginton. And Papelbon didn't blow the lead. See? Everything is going to be totally fine. Am I using that phrase too much? "Ty Wigginton," I mean.

By the middle of May, Paps was 10-for-10 in saves, and anyone else who had tried to close out a Phillies game had failed (this occurred seven times). During some down time, Papelbon told reporters that he knew the Red Sox would never have matched the Phillies' offer, and that "Cinco don't know how he do, he just do. Cinco knows a lot more than you think Cinco knows, at times. Put it that way." Even when Papelbon would eventually blow a save in late June, he offered $5,000 to any Phillies hitter who could right his wrong (It wound up being Jim Thome, who did not receive the check).

Two months later during the All-Star break when the Phillies were 13 games under .500, on their way to an 81-81 finish, Boston reporters again tried to goad some regret out of Papelbon and were denied. He didn't even feel regret when he gave up a game-blowing three-run home run to Chipper Jones in September.

"I threw the pitch I wanted," Papelbon said. "I'm the pitcher. I throw the pitch I want."

--Associated Press

By the end of the season, Papelbon's new team failed to make the playoffs for the first time in five years - but he set a career high in games finished (64), generated 1.7 WAR, 38 saves and a 2.44 ERA in 70 games. He may have felt a twinge of regret, but quickly buried it by hitting the Chester casinos with Cliff Lee, and also by looking forward to the $13 million he would make the following season, no matter what happened.

However, it seemed that the Phillies were trending downward, noted each time something good didn't happen, which was often. Several futures were predictable - Ryan Howard wasn't going anywhere, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, and Jimmy Rollins were temporarily tradeable, Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence were already gone. But the star closer had already signed on for the next few years, having liked what he'd seen in a team that had just pulled off a 100-win season. His future was here, as he had planned, but maybe he had signed on a little too late.

And so, the years passed, as did the Phillies' prime. The previous seasons could be recalled via laughter and joy, but the 2012-15 period became a monotonous blur. "Did you see the game last night?" became a question to which the response was no longer excited giggles and snorts. People were just shrugging, and... doing other things.

Everybody waited to see what Paps would do, poking him with knowing, mischievous grins. This wasn't what he wanted, and he wasn't a man who wouldn't tell you when we wasn't getting what he wanted. Feel-good stories weren't available, so it was time to start cultivating the feel-bad ones. They'd get a few from him, now and again: "I definitely didn't come here for this," he said in July 2013. But it wasn't until this past April that he finally came full circle:

"The Red Sox are a part of who I am, man... I don’t really feel much like a Phillie."

"I've never been embraced here, from day one."

A few weeks later, he solidified his place in Phillies history with a simple fingering of the balls.

Unlike past "town vs. Phillies" player debates, nobody really disagrees with Papelbon. Some of the dumber media types try to act as instigators, but who cares? Papelbon miscalculated which team was on the upswing when he was signing contracts and the Phillies paid him too much to move him when their plan went kablooie. Now they're stuck with each other for a bit longer, and no one will be truly happy until both are free.

Thankfully, Papelbon has proven his value. He blows saves on occasion, but has also been the most consistently valuable member of the bullpen while here (which must contribute to him feeling like he's wasting his time). He pitched a clean inning one day in 2014 that wound up being the cherry on top of a combined Phillies no-hitter. When C'thulu rose and Jeff Francoeur had to come in and pitch this season, it was Papelbon giving him a pep talk. Later, he'd become the Phillies all-time leader in saves. Papelbon. Not Francoeur.

Years from now, Papelbon will probably be a fleeting memory of a forgotten time as Philadelphians cheers to the Phillies' ongoing World Series championship streak that started in 2018 as the city burns around them due to a sequence of horrifying global cataclysms.

Someone will recall that mouthy closer who was once so unhappy here. "To Paps," they'll say, lifting their glasses. "He sure did fondle those nards."