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Which Phillies pitcher should the Red Sox pursue? Not the one who was here before

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  July 10, 2013 05:51 AM

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Did you get temporarily duped too? Some get-a-life clown with a fake account for CBS Sports baseball writer Danny Knobler tweeted Tuesday that Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon had been traded to the Tigers for a package including prospect Nick Castellanos.

Turned out it wasn't real. But my reaction was. Interesting move. Glad this eliminates all the silly chatter of him coming back to Boston.

The Red Sox have bullpen issues right now, sure. The constant attrition has been tough to endure, with the season-ending loss of Andrew Miller, who was finally harnessing all of that talent, the latest blow. The tall, gifted lefty, who was drafted ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum and was featured in a trade for Miguel Cabrera, finally had found his niche in the bullpen.

Andrew Bailey is fighting to be what he was in Oakland and during the first few weeks of the season. Craig Breslow is dependable, but you don't want to have to depend on him too much, if that makes sense. Koji Uehara has been exceptional and Junichi Tazawa reliable, but the fear of overworking both lingers.

They need something, a quality reinforcement or two for sure. But the familiar and biggest name isn't the answer in this particular case. Papelbon is overpaid – he's due $13 million each of the last two years, with a vesting option for the same amount in 2016, when he'll be 35 years old. And while the fundamental numbers are as good as they ever were – he has a 2.27 ERA, a .897 WHIP, and 19 saves, there are some signs that a decline is near if not already underway:

Papelbon's K/9 rate of 7.6 is fpapelbonjonathanfinn.JPGar and away the lowest of his career. (His best came during his sensational 2007 season, when he whiffed 13 batters per nine innings, which is only slightly higher than Uehara's 12.4 this season.) And as Gammons indicated, the dip in strikeouts coincides with an alarming drop in velocity. Papelbon's average fastball velocity this season is 92.4 miles per hour, down from last year's 93.8 ... which was down a full mile per hour from his last two seasons in Boston. As someone who depends greatly on his fastball – Papelbon requires both velocity and command because it has little movement – that is downright worrisome. 

(I should note FanGraphs had a recommended and deeper look at Papelbon's slippage recently. Read for the insight, stay for David Cameron's hilarious reaction to a commenter's proposed Papebon-for-Jackie Bradley Jr. swap.)

The Red Sox can reinforce their bullpen with subtler additions, perhaps from the outside (Jesse Crain and Matt Thornton are already familiar with and to Juan Nieves from their time together in Chicago) or within the organization (Brandon Workman is a fascinating arrival, and Rubby De La Rosa will get here soon despite his hiccup the other day).

Given general manager Ben Cherington's habitual thoroughness, surely he's considering bullpen acquisitions that we media folk haven't even suspected.

If the Red Sox are to make a significant pitching move in advance of the trading deadline, which somehow is just three weeks away, it should be for the rotation rather than the relief corps.

Which brings us back around to the Phillies again. Right now they're stuck somewhere in that midseason purgatory between contender and pretender, 5.5 games out of the second wild card in the National League. Though they ultimately missed the playoffs, they went on a tear late last season, winning 34 of 56 games in August and September, and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. apparently believes they are capable of that again – he's said to be looking to add to the Phillies' roster rather than going into sell mode.

So if you're pining for Cliff Lee, it's probably wise to root for a 10-game Phillies losing streak over the next few weeks.

But make no mistake: Red Sox fans should be pining for him.

Lee is 34 now and due $50 million over the next two seasons, with a $27.5 million vesting option for '16. Yep, that's a lot. Know what else? He's still pitching like someone worth every dime of that contract. He's 10-2 with a 2.73 ERA and .98 WHIP. He's whiffed 119 and walked just 21 in 131.2 innings. He hasn't lost since May 1, a span of 12 starts. And his appeal is enhanced by an exceptional track record in October (seven wins, 2.52 ERA in 11 postseason starts).

Lee is as good as ever, still a true ace. He'd be an exceptional fit in the Red Sox' rotation when all is well, let alone when there are issues and unanswered questions. We have no idea when Clay Buchholz will be back – he apparently has suffered the most debilitating toddler-holding injury in the history of mankind. Allen Webster isn't ready. Beloved Fan-Favorite John Lackey is the de facto ace.

After a fast start that convinced some of us too soon that John Farrell had cured whatever ailed him last year, Jon Lester is pitching ... well, like he did last year. Pretty abysmally. His fastball velocity is down for the third straight year, and his numbers since the All-Star break last year -- 12 wins, 13 losses, 34 starts, 212.1 innings, 214 hits, 28 HRs, 80 BBs, 171 Ks, 4.88 ERA, 1.38 WHIP -- are reminiscent of the some mediocre-to-lousy seasons in Red Sox history:

Rk Player IP W ERA HR Year Age GS H ER BB SO ERA+
1 Mike Torrez 252.1 16 4.49 20 1979 32 36 254 126 121 125 99
2 Bruce Hurst 238.2 15 4.41 35 1987 29 33 239 117 76 190 104
3 Hod Lisenbee 237.1 10 4.40 20 1930 31 31 254 116 86 47 105
4 Bruce Hurst 229.1 11 4.51 31 1985 27 31 243 115 70 189 95
5 Tim Wakefield 216.0 17 4.58 30 1998 31 33 211 110 79 146 103
6 Tom Gordon 215.2 12 5.59 28 1996 28 34 249 134 105 171 90
7 Tim Wakefield 211.2 14 5.14 38 1996 29 32 238 121 90 140 98
8 Jon Lester 205.1 9 4.82 25 2012 28 33 216 110 68 166 89
9 Bronson Arroyo 205.1 14 4.51 22 2005 28 32 213 103 54 100 101
10 Daisuke Matsuzaka 204.2 15 4.40 25 2007 26 32 191 100 80 201 108
11 Josh Beckett 204.2 16 5.01 36 2006 26 33 191 114 74 158 95
12 Earl Wilson 202.1 11 4.49 37 1964 29 31 213 101 73 166 87
13 Gene Conley 199.2 11 4.91 33 1961 30 30 229 109 65 113 85
14 Hideo Nomo 198.0 13 4.50 26 2001 32 33 171 99 96 220 100
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/10/2013.

If there comes a point in which the Phillies realize the present is bleak and start playing for the future, Lee of course will be coveted and the cost in prospects will be steep. Xander Bogaerts, whom I'm convinced plays meaningful games for the Red Sox this fall if not sooner, is a deal-breaker. Bradley probably is too. But the Red Sox' farm system is deep, and there is some prospect redundancy. They could do it if they so desired.

Papelbon? The Tigers can have him in all deals real and imagined.

Oh, and the Michael Young-to-the-Sox rumors? Let's stop with those, too.

The bullpen needs tweaks and minor alterations, and the offense is fine. But if it's a blockbuster you're looking for, train those eyes on Philadelphia and the great Cliff Lee, the one piece that would turn a surprisingly pleasant bridge year into a season of genuine championship contention.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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