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.   

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Daniel, this was a really good article. All too often we follow the day-to-day developments (tweets, etc.), but fail to take a step back for a broader perspective. Your article really provided an insightful take on this trend from this offseason. Kudos to you!
I agree. I'm really enjoying the First Take series so far.
I'm not sure that 8.5m for Madson isn't an overpay as well. It only looks cheap when compared to Papelbon and Bell. Madson has averaged 1.0 WARP the last two seasons, so there's no reason to expect much more than that. I'd almost rather have Francisco, who will only cost an extra 3.5m for that second season.
I could see the case for Francisco over Madson, given their relative contracts. That said, I think Madson's 47.7% career ground ball rate is a much better fit for Great American Ballpark.
I've watched Ryan Madson pitch just about every day since being called up 7 years ago or so. He's been instrumental to the Phillies success of the past 5 years and I'm sorry to see him go. Part of me wonders if this whole situation wasn't a battle of egos (Boras and Amaro). It's no secret that Boras is persona non grata with GM's around baseball. Time will tell if the Phillies did the right thing. I'm no fan of Papelbon, but hopefully he'll grow on me when the saves start piling up. As for Madson, he is damn near unhittable when he's on (one of the best changeups in all of MLB combined with mid-90's fastball). I wish him well in Cincy.
the Phillies don't have to worry themselves with pissing off Boras because they're too laden with contracts to be bidding on his clients anyway.
FWIW, the Philly media is reporting that the Phillies will get 2 picks for Madson, a sandwich pick between the 1st and 2nd rounds, AND the pick right before the Reds 2nd round pick. So, if you add it up, the Phillies moved down a few spots in the first round, but picked up an extra 2nd round pick by signing Papelbon instead of Madson.

Also, I think there is an argument to made that there is value in certainty, especially at the Phillies stage of the success cycle. Anything less than the World Series is basically a failure at this point, and you have deep pockets, so is it really worth it to play chicken with the free agent closer market ? If Papelbon sucks or gets hurt no one is going to blame Amaro that much because at least he tried, he made an aggressive move. If he waited to try and save money and ended up with say Frank Francisco who then proceeded to suck or get hurt, people would be calling for his head. In other words, I think Amaro was focused on maximizing his chance of being Phillies GM in 2013, not maximizing the Phillies' probability of winning it all in 2012.
There's something to be said for the security that Amaro gained by locking up Papelbon early, but $41.5 million in guaranteed salary seems a steep price to pay for it.
Ruin Tomorrow is the greatest GM in baseball. How dare you sir?!?

I've been enjoying First Take each day when having my morning coffee and crossing off another day on the calender bringing us closer to the day that pitchers and catchers report.

I have no idea why Rube thinks it's a really super awesome idea to jump into free agency like a drunken sailor at a strip club but I'm hoping eventually someone is added to the front office mix who can get him to stop thinking that the guy who signs the first player to the biggest contract wins. I do think it's smart to have an elite closer. Going back to Wainwright in 2006, Papelbon in 2007, Lidge in 2008, Rivera in 2009, and Wilson in 2010 I see some elite names on the rosters of the winning side in each of those WS. Maybe Motte isn't elite yet but people have been waiting on him to arrive for a while now.

Did the Phils need a reliable guy in the back of the pen for 2012? Yeah, I'd say it was a good idea to get that guy. Did they need to spend $50M on that guy? Probably a big fat "no" on that one. So while it's almost certainly an overpay in both years and dollars the bottom line is... well, nevermind. The bottom line is that it's an overpay. Still, I'm not sold on the idea that contending teams should avoid Madson in favor of a 37 year old guy still recovering from TJ (sorry Joe Nathan). There is something to be said for certainty but it's gotta have a price and I'm not sure the price needs to be in the $50M range.