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Breaking down the Jonathan Papelbon problem

Instead of flying high into Chicago, the Phillies have to wonder about their bullpen and their ineffective closer.

Ruben Amaro would like to avoid contracts like that of Jonathan Papelbon's going forward. Credit: Getty Images Ruben Amaro would like to avoid contracts like that of Jonathan Papelbon's going forward. Credit: Getty Images

When breaking down the Phillies during spring training with John Kruk, the ESPN analyst stressed that if key players produced at the plate and as starters, Ryne Sandberg’s team has a chance to contend for a playoff berth.

But when the subject turned to what could go wrong, the bullpen came up ad nauseum.


“That could be the Phillies Achillies heal,” Kruk said. “They’re young except (Jonathan) Papelbon. It’s hard to count on young guys.”

It’s also difficult to count on Papelbon, who is unfortunately the Phillies aging closer with deteriorating stuff.

“You hope he can at least pitch as well as he did last year, which wasn’t that great,” Kruk said. “I don’t know what you’ll get out of him this year...the rotation is only as good as the bullpen.”

After only three games, that analysis nails the Phillies. A.J. Burnett and Kyle Kendrick tossed gems against the Rangers, who present one of the toughest lineups in baseball. Burnett and Kendrick each gave up a run after pitching more than six innings but they each needed help from the bullpen late to win games.

Each time the pen failed. In game two of the Rangers series, it was strange watching Jake Diekman face Adrian Beltre for the second game in a row. The Rangers clean-up hitter fought off a Diekman fastball to tie game two of the series. The most curious move of the young season occurred during game two when green Mario Hollands made his major league debut in the ninth with the game knotted at 2. The contest didn’t stayed tied for long as the Rangers came back to win.

“You just don’t know with young kids out of the pen,” Kruk said. “It’s a gamble.”

And then there’s Papelbon. Ruben Amaro gambled more than $50 million that a former elite closer on the north side of 30 would dominate at the end of games.

The Phillies handed Papelbon a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth during the rubber game of the series. Papelbon had no command. He failed to have much of a fastball, which averaged 91.6 miles per hour. Papelbon fired an 0-2 fastball sternum level at Adrian Beltre, who tomahawked a base hit. It went downhill from there.

Papelbon, who has no out pitch, retired just one of eight hitters and he allowed three runs, including a bases loaded walk, which ended the game.

Instead of flying high into Chicago with a deserved series win over the Rangers, the Phillies have to wonder about their bullpen and their ineffective closer.

“I don’t like what I see,” a NL scout said about Papelbon during spring training. “This could be a really rough year for him. He didn’t pitch as well as the numbers indicate (2.92 ERA) last season. He could be a real problem for the Phillies.”

At least Pap has his winning personality. Papelbon could be a divisive force in the locker room. “But I wouldn’t worry about that with Marlon Byrd on the team,” Kruk said. “If anybody says something (derogatory) count on Byrd to deal with it.”

Speaking of Byrd, there are quite a few positives to take out of Arlington. Byrd, who hit .385 in Texas, is a revelation in right field. “He’s better in right than anybody that they had out there last year,” Kruk said. “And man, can he hit.”

After posting terrible spring training numbers, Chase Utley also hit .385 in Arlington and played solid ball all weekend.

Ryan Howard had two big hits against lefthanders during the Rangers series. The Big Piece homered and drove in three. Howard also struck out 7 times. “But that’s what you get with Ryan Howard,” the NL scout said. “He strikes out a lot but he drives in a lot of runs. It’s something you have to live with since few players drive in runs like Howard.”

Cody Asche had no issues with the blinding glare of opening day. The rookie third baseman had a nice series with the bat (a 1.556 OPS) and the glove.

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