Four years, $50 million, and a first-round pick for Jonathan Papelbon is excessive. One year, $8.5 million, and a second-rounder for Ryan Madson is the steal of the offseason. That much, virtually everyone can agree on. The means to the end, on the other hand, are now the source of an amusing spat.
Madson’s agent, Scott Boras, is understandably frustrated. He claims in a report by ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick that the Phillies offered his client $44 million over four years, then reneged and signed Papelbon instead. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had a much different take on the story. In his view, the two sides were never in agreement and—without explicitly saying so—he intimated that Boras is now merely trying to save face.
In a vacuum, $50 million for the younger and slightly more valuable Papelbon makes more sense than $44 million for Madson. If Amaro had been presented with those two options and no others, then his choice would have been the correct one. But these deals—or no deals—were not made in a vacuum. By choosing Papelbon, the Phillies effectively set the market that dried up before Madson found a home.
If Amaro had not jumped the gun and signed Papelbon in mid-November, the entire offseason might have gone differently. Papelbon might still be a Red Sox and Madson might still be a Phillie. Andrew Bailey might now be wearing Cincinnati’s red stockings instead of Boston’s. The Marlins might not have shelled out $27 million over three years to Heath Bell, and the Mets might have thought twice about committing $12 million for two years of Frank Francisco.
The alleged miscommunication between Amaro and Boras clouds the overarching issue. This was a case of two men—an aggressive GM and an even more aggressive agent—misreading the market. The salient quote in Crasnick’s story is neither Boras’s attack nor Amaro’s defense; it is the former’s explanation at the end, when he states, “teams turned their back on the closer role.”
When the Astros fired Ed Wade in late November, they did so in part because of his penchant for overvaluing relievers. Wade was slow to adapt to baseball’s realization that one-inning pitchers are volatile and generally paid more than they are worth, particularly in the case of those who pitch the ninth. The three-year, $15 million deal Wade handed to Brandon Lyon in 2009 may have been the biggest mistake of his ugly tenure.
Amaro is far from the hot seat, and Boras’ agency is still teeming with clients, but both would be wise to catch on. The winners on the relief market this offseason are the Red Sox—who replaced Papelbon with Andrew Bailey, and may well replace the talent they surrendered with the picks they received—and the Reds, who watched Madson fall into their hands.
For now, Boras is wearing the dunce hat. As Papelbon ages, Amaro may look silly, too. And in the meantime, Walt Jocketty, the beneficiary of their miscalculations, will be laughing all the way to the bank.