Yesterday we learned that the Phillies and all-star closer Jonathan Papelbon agreed to a 4 year, $50 million dollar contract with a vesting option in 2016 worth $10 million dollars giving him the potential to earn $60 million dollars making him the richest relief pitcher ever in baseball. Papelbon is a good closer but no closer, no reliever for that matter is worth $50 million dollars.
Last year Papelbon did have one of his best seasons posting 3 WAR and a 2.16 xFIP. Papelbon's .309 BABIP was slightly above his career .275 BABIP, the other two years where his WAR was at 3 or above he had BABIPs of .224 and .293 so he might not be a 3 WAR closer. It wouldn't be surprising to see Papelbon regress and post a BABIP similar to his career BABIP next season. In 2009 when Papelbon posted a .278 BABIP he had a 3.91 xFIP and when he had a .287 BABIP in 2010 his xFIP was 3.56. Just two seasons ago Papelbon posted his highest HR/9 and BB% of his career. .94 per 9 and 9.8% respectively.
Over the life of the contract I expect Papelbon to post WARs of 1.5, 2, 1.5 and 1 making him worth $30 million dollars. That doesn't mean Papelbon should get that big of a deal but it does mean the Phillies could lose $20 million dollars in this deal if not more.
In 2005 the Toronto Blue Jays made B.J. Ryan the highest paid reliever in baseball paying him $47 million dollars over 5 years. His first season he did very good posting 2.9 WAR and a 2.94 xFIP. After that it went downhill. And fast. In May of 2007 B.J. Ryan got Tommy John Surgery and missed the rest of the year. In 2008 he had a 4.26 xFIP and only .9 WAR. In 2009 he pitched in only 25 games and had a 6.48 xFIP and -.6 WAR. The Blue Jays thought they were getting a premium closer but in the end they got nothing. In fact the Blue Jays actually lost $35.3 million dollars in that deal. Ryan only gave the Blue Jays $11.7 million dollars in value.
Last off-season the Yankees signed Rafael Soriano to a 3 year, $35 million dollar deal and Soriano hasn't lived up to that either. In 2010 Soriano had a 3.62 xFIP and only 1.5 WAR. In 2011 Soriano's xFIP was 4.18 and he posted an abysmal .3 WAR.
As you can see giving big dollars to closers can be a big problem. With that $50 million dollars the Phillies could have improved an area of need such as third base or their outfield. The Phillies are rumored to be interested in Michael Cuddyer, with some of that $50 million and a cheaper closer such as Jonathan Broxton. The Phillies will hope that Papelbon will help anchor a bullpen that probably won't need to work as much due to their amazing rotation but history is defiantly not on their side.