Vesting option makes Phillies’ Papelbon difficult to trade

It's difficult for the Phillies to find a team that wants to take Jonathan Papelbon when neither side knows how much money he will make in 2016.

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Phillies do not currently owe closer Jonathan Papelbon any money in 2016; Papelbon’s $13 million vesting option for that season will become guaranteed only if he finishes 48 games in ’15.

So, why would the Phillies offer to pay a significant portion of the vesting option in a trade with the Brewers or any other club?

Good question – and a question that is complicating the Phillies’ efforts to trade Papelbon, a pursuit they began more than a year ago.

Papelbon is owed $13 million this season, but thanks to his vesting option the exact amount left on his contract is a moving target.

It’s difficult enough for teams to agree upon how much money should be in a trade. It’s even more difficult when they don’t know how much the player is owed. So, as much as the Phillies need to trade Papelbon, the whole thing is easier said than done.

The Phillies are willing to include cash in trades – they paid a combined $5 million to purge shortstop Jimmy Rollins and outfielder Marlon Byrd and are prepared to pay a vast portion of first baseman Ryan Howard’s $60 million in any deal.

But why would the Phillies pay, say, an unnecessary $6 million on the vesting option when a more attractive financial and prospect package might become available in July?

Papelbon likely will require the Brewers or any other team on his no-trade list to guarantee his option before approving a trade, sources say. The second year, then, effectively would be part of the deal for those clubs – and not an enticing part, considering that Papelbon is 34.


So, it should come as no surprise that the talks between the Phillies and Brewers already have slowed down – “it doesn’t appear that there’s any momentum to it right now,” Brewers general manager Doug Melvin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Saturday.

The Phillies have yet to make a financial offer to the Brewers, according to sources. They are not under a mandate from ownership to trade Papelbon; they intend to make such a deal only if it is to their benefit.

Here are their four possible trade scenarios:

* Trade Papelbon now to a team on his 17-team no-trade list – the stalled talks with the Brewers illustrate the difficulty of that quest.

* Trade Papelbon now to one of the 12 teams not on his no-trade list – the vesting option still would be an obstacle.

* Trade Papelbon closer to the July 31 non-waiver deadline to a team on his no-trade list – Papelbon again could require his option to be exercised.

* Trade Papelbon closer to the deadline to a team not on his no-trade list – the vesting option again would be a factor if he were within range of 48 games finished.

Of course, there is one other element to all this:

How badly does Papelbon want out?

He could facilitate a move to a team on his no-trade list by telling the Phillies that he would not require the option to be guaranteed. Though most players leverage no-trade rights to gain some other benefit, Rollins approved his deal to the Dodgers without any inducement.

Papelbon, after finishing 52 games last season, could get fewer closing opportunities this season given the Phillies’ deteriorating situation. The team could make it even more difficult for him to reach 48 games finished by giving Ken Giles certain closing opportunities in the first half.

Papelbon likely would be upset by such a development, perhaps cause a disruption, maybe even file a grievance. But his trade value would be higher, and if dealt, he could become a free agent without being subject to a qualifying offer.

The risk of Papelbon getting hurt, meanwhile, would be somewhat mitigated for the Phils; an injury would limit his appearances and reduce the chances of the option vesting.

Still, the Phillies will pay Papelbon $2.17 million a month during the season until they trade him. They would save money by moving him now, even if they have to pay to make him go away.

Not the most desirable outcome?

Too bad.

The Phillies created this mess by giving Papelbon both no-trade protection and a vesting option in a four-year, $50 million free-agent deal that appeared excessive from the moment it was signed.

They need to find a way out.