Pick a pitcher: Francisco Rodriguez vs. Jonathan Papelbon

The Milwaukee Brewers, despite recently signing Neal Cotts, are still in the market for a reliever, preferably a reliever with closing experience. And contrary to my first reaction, the motive makes a lot of sense. Jonathan Broxton is anything but a sure thing (see fastball velocity), and I won’t be surprised if he’s ousted as closer within the first few weeks of the season (or as early as spring training). The Brewers desperately need a backup plan, mostly because they don’t believe in Jeremy Jeffress as much as I do, but also because Jim Henderson‘s throwing arm is a question mark. Not to mention the lack of “closing experience” the Brewers currently have (for some reason major league teams continue to cite this as a weakness). Milwaukee has made it clear that they want to add another closer to the roster, and names like Francisco Rodriguez and Jonathan Papelbon have been thrown around time and time again. Rodriguez has said he wants to return to Milwaukee, and the Brewers are engaged in conversation with the Philadelphia Phillies regarding Papelbon.

So, assuming the Brewers pull the trigger on one of these players, let’s play another round of “Pick a Pitcher”.

First up: K-Rod.

Okay, we are all aware of the legal troubles Rodriguez has been involved in. That’s old news and I’m not going to touch on that subject because this isn’t a law chat room. It’s a baseball blog. I hope you understand that there’s a difference. If not, God help you. When voting, try to only judge him based on his performance on the field, not off it.

Rodriguez loves Milwaukee. He has already served two different terms with the Brewers and is seeking a third. He wants to be back and would, in all likelihood, take a discount to return. As each day passes without the Brewers inking another reliever, the likelihood of Rodriguez’s return increases, because we know how much they like bringing back old players.

But is he really the best option?

Rodriguez’s WAR has decreased in each of the last four seasons, and in 2014, his -0.6 WAR was a career worst. That’s despite allowing a drastically low .219 batting average on balls in play. His ERA was respectable at 3.04, but ERA is silly to look at by itself. The true story — or least truer story — is told by his FIP, and his FIP wasn’t pretty. League average FIP among relievers was 3.60; Rodriguez posted a mark of 4.50. In other words, only two other relievers who pitched a minimum of 60 innings had a higher FIP. Much of that, however, is due to the number of home runs he allowed (14). His HR/FB ratio was over 20% for the first time in his career as he allowed 1.85 home runs per nine innings. His abundance of home runs resulted in a 2.91 xFIP, meaning that’s what his ERA would have looked like if he had surrendered a league average home run to fly ball ratio. Because of this, odds are that Rodriguez won’t give up 14 home runs again. Still, how much he can be trusted in high leverage situations is unclear.

Financially speaking, Rodriguez is the cheaper option of the two. He’s most likely in the market for a two-year deal worth around $7 million, and while $7 million isn’t much at all, I’d be surprised if the Brewers agreed to anything more than one-year deal with him. They don’t want to be stuck with a declining pitcher for an additional year if it isn’t necessary.

Papelbon, on the other hand, is on the opposite side of the spectrum in terms of both talent and cost.

Papelbon’s 2014 stat line is impressive. He’s coming off his best season (in terms of WAR) since 2011 and he posted the league’s 19th-best FIP among relievers. All across the board his numbers look good. But there are a few areas that should concern Milwaukee’s front office.

Like Broxton, Papelbon’s heater has come out of his hand at a slower speed for the last few years now. As a basic rule, losing velocity is rarely a good thing. Papelbon is not a young man anymore, and his worn-out arm will continue to be worn, resulting in slower fastballs. He’ll (probably) become less effective with each tick of mph he loses.

In 2014, Papelbon allowed two home runs in 66.1 innings. That’s a career low. He allowed 73 fly balls and only one of those managed to leave the ball park — the other home run was considered a line drive by Baseball Savant. Why is that important? Well, just like Rodriguez won’t give up 14 home runs next season, Papelbon won’t give up two. He’s destined to give up more as regression to the mean will be in full effect.

Let’s not forget that the Brewers have to actually trade for Papelbon in order to get him in a Brewers’ uniform. The Brewers have to trade away prospects and acquire Papelbon’s contract that includes a vesting option. The money is why the Brewers haven’t completed this trade yet. They’re okay with giving him $13 million in 2015, but his $13 million vesting option the following year is something the Brewers are refusing to do.

The Brewers have to ask themselves if they really feel like they can compete in 2015. If the answer is yes, trading for Papelbon and attaining his contract would be the smart move. If the answer is no, acquiring either of these players, especially Papelbon, would be foolish.

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