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Winner or Loser: The Jonathan Papelbon Trade

Papelbon became the Phillies all-time Saves leader. But by the end of his time in Philly, he had become a villain to the fan base. (Martyna Borkowski/WikiCommons)

On July 29, 2015 the Philadelphia Phillies ended weeks of speculation when they traded closer Jonathan Papelbon to the division rival Washington Nationals. In exchange, the Phillies received a little-known pitching prospect by the name of Nick Pivetta.

If you ask most Phillies fans today, you will find very few who view Papelbon in a positive light. It wasn’t always that way. In November of 2011, then general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. inked the former Boston Red Sox star to a four-year, $50 million free agent deal with a fifth year club vesting option. This was part of Amaro’s response to the shocking defeat of his 102-win club to the Saint Louis Cardinals in the 2011 National League Division Series just a month earlier.

The big right-hander had registered 219 Saves over the previous six full seasons in Boston. He finished as the 2006 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up and was selected to four AL All-Star teams. At 31-years of age, Papelbon seemed a perfect fit for a team that expected to continue contending as they had for the last decade.

Instead, the Phillies would miss the postseason for the first time since 2006. This was largely thanks to injuries which robbed the team of the presence and/or effectiveness of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay that season. Papelbon was a bright spot for a disappointing club, recording 38 Saves, his most since 2009. He was also selected as a National League All-Star.

In 2013, Papelbon again had solid overall numbers. However, he also blew seven of 36 save opportunities. The Phillies would finish 73-89, their first season below .500 since 2005.

The 2014 season was a strong one for the Phillies closer. He converted 39 of 43 save opportunities during a year in which he produced a 2.04 ERA and 0.905 WHP. Unfortunately, the team continued to struggle in the standings, again finishing with just 73 wins.

Frustration among the relief pitcher and the fan base boiled over on Sunday, September 14 at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies entered the ninth inning leading the Miami Marlins by 4-1. Papelbon didn’t have it that day, surrendering four hits, walking a batter and throwing a wild pitch.

He would blow the lead before retiring the side, finally walking off the mound with the Phillies now down 5-4. As he approached the home dugout, Papelbon began to “adjust” himself, grabbing at his crotch area as boos rained down on him from the home crowd. It appeared that he was reacting to those fans with an obscene gesture.

Umpire Joe West definitely interpreted Papelbon’s actions in that way and promptly ejected the pitcher. The following day, the MLB commissioner’s office handed Papelbon a seven-game suspension.  He would appear in two more games before the season was over, saving both with shutout innings. But his relationship with the Phillies fan base was over.

The Phillies entered the 2015 season clearly having entered a full rebuilding program. Jimmy Rollins was shipped to Los Angeles in the off season. Rumors were flying that Cole Hamels, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard could be dealt by the trade deadline on July 30.

Papelbon knew that he was also on the block and responded by having an elite first-half in 2015, the final year of his contract. He converted all 17 of his save opportunities and was named to the NL All-Star team for the second time in his Phillies career.

With his value as high as it could possibly get and continual pressure from the fans to move him, the Phillies finally found a trade partner. Two days before the non-waiver deadline, Amaro sent Papelbon to the first-place Nationals in exchange for Pivetta.

The number say that Papelbon produced for the Phillies. He became the franchise all-time leader with 123 Saves over parts of four seasons. He allowed 191 hits over 237.2 innings in 234 games, striking out 252 batters. But the ugly ending erased any chance that he would be remembered for any of his on-field performances, at least among the fans.

The deal would not work out for Washington. The Nats held a three-game lead in the NL East but would produce a losing record the rest of the way, finishing seven games behind the New York Mets. Despite registering seven Saves, Papelbon was not nearly as dominant as he had been earlier in the year with the Phillies.

On September 27, one night after the frustrated Nationals had been eliminated from the postseason, Papelbon publicly confronted Bryce Harper as the young outfielder walked back to the dugout after not running hard to first base on an easy out. When Harper tried to verbally defend himself the two got into a more heated argument inside the dugout and Papelbon began to choke Harper before being pulled off by teammates. Ironically enough, the team in the opposing team that day was the Phillies, who would win 12-5.

The Nats paid his $11 million option and brought him back in 2016 but his performance deteriorated in what would be his final season at age 35. He would lose his closer role to Mark Melancon and would not pitch after his final appearance on August 6. Washington released him a week later and his big-league career was over.

The 22-year-old Pivetta began his Phillies career with Double-A Reading and struggled mightily with a 7.31 ERA over seven starts. The following year saw him respond with an improved performance. Splitting his season between Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley, Pivetta went 12-8 with a 3.27 ERA, allowing just 128 hits over 148.2 innings.

Pivetta began the 2017 season on fire, going 5-0 with a 1.44 ERA in five starts back at Lehigh Valley. The call was coming. he would make his MLB debut on April 30, 2017 in Dodger Stadium. He went five innings that afternoon, allowing just two runs but also surrendering nine hits.

Pivetta remained with the Phillies for most of that season, finishing with an 8-11 record and a 6.02 ERA, including starts where he gave up eight and nine runs. He also struck out 140 batters over 133 innings, demonstrating that he could dominate big-league hitters when at his best.

Pivetta took a step forward in 2018 when at age 25 he spent the entire year with the Phillies. He went just 7-14 with a 4.77 ERA and 1.305 WHIP. But he also allowed fewer hits than innings pitched (163 over 164) and struck out 188 opposing batters. He enters the 2019 season with many considering him a major breakout candidate.

So, it’s now decision time – who won the trade? Pivetta is now a 26-year-old power pitcher just entering his prime who appears to have tremendous upside. If he doesn’t ultimately make it as a starter, he could still succeed as a long-term, back-end reliever. Papelbon self-destructed in D.C. and never pitched in the playoffs for them. The Nationals also had to eat part of his fifth-year vesting option. This one was clearly a trade win for the Philadelphia Phillies.




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