Trade for Jonathan Papelbon? Sure, if we don’t have to actually pay him

Go ahead, be honest: How many of you had the Milwaukee Brewers on the short list of teams that might seriously consider going after Jonathan Papelbon? With his $13 million salary in 2015? Well, that’s exactly what Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported, late Thursday night:

The Phillies’ desire to trade Papelbon is no secret as they start a massive rebuild that already has seen more than $40 million shaved off their estimated opening-day payroll. While the 34-year-old is coming off a typically excellent season, with a 2.04 ERA and 39 saves, his flagging velocity and perceived negative attitude – Papelbon was suspended for seven games last September after grabbing his crotch following a blown save in Philadelphia – led to them looking for a trading partner.

Milwaukee could be it. After sending Yovani Gallardo, who makes $13 million, to the Texas Rangers this week, the Brewers expressed interest in acquiring late-inning relief help.

Uh, I would worry a LOT less about the crotch-grabbing than the flagging velocity, not to mention the unimpressive “peripherals” for two years running.

Look, I didn’t like Papelbon’s contract when he signed it, for the simple reason that history, not to mention any sort of objective analysis, doesn’t recommend investing $52 million – actually, probably $65 million because of a vesting option that will vest if Papelbon finishes 48 games this year, which he’ll do unless he’s hurt, or struggling badly enough to get yanked from his high-paid job – in just about any relief pitcher you might name. I probably wrote something along these lines at the time.

Basically, the Phillies, in Ruben Amaro Jr.’s infinite wisdom, paid Papelbon for his last year with the Red Sox … which happened to be significantly better than what he’d done in the previous two years. A classic mistake!

Papelbon pitched pretty well in his first season with the Phillies, posting the fourth-lowest xFIP of his career. But his second and third seasons? His strikeout rate plummeted, right along with his average fastball speeds – funny how that happens, eh? – and his xFIPs have been discouragingly pedestrian (3.51, 3.50).

Yes, dead-enders will cite Papelbon’s 2.04 ERA last season as PROOF that he’s still got it. But Papelbon’s 2.04 ERA last season was the product of luck that will quite probably not be repeated. He gave up only two home runs all season, while his long résumé suggests he’ll give up at least five or six next time. He gave up a .247 batting average on balls in play, when his long résumé suggests his BABiP allowed will be roughly 30 points higher next time. And while Papelbon’s pitch selection has evolved, probably because he’s not throwing as hard, it’s not showing up in his ground-ball rate, which has remained fairly steady.

Papelbon’s posted just one ERA higher than 2.94 in his entire career, but all the numbers say he’ll make it two this year, and probably with plenty to spare.

I will guess that if the Brewers do agree to relieve the Phillies of Papelbon’s contract, they’ll not have to give up much. Maybe they send a middling prospect, or maybe a better prospect in return for Papelbon and a big check.

If there’s not a check, though, I don’t see how the Brewers can possibly come out ahead on this one. Unless they really just can’t find another reasonable place to spend their money. Because while Papelbon might be better than whomever else would have that roster spot, he’s been worth $13 million just once in the last six seasons, which include a few seasons when he was actually good.

So if the Brewers get a big discount on Papelbon’s salary, whatever. He won’t make them much better, but he shouldn’t make them worse. If they don’t get a big discount, though? That means they’re either foolish or simply have far more money than they can spend elsewhere. In what’s easily the smallest market in the major leagues.