In the middle of his magical 2008 season, Brad Lidge inked a three year extension instead of becoming a free agent at the end of the year from then GM Pat Gillick. While Gillick made several shrewd moves to pick up the likes of JC Romero, Matt Stairs, Chad Durbin, and Jayson Werth, Lidge’s contract is a gaffe in Gillick’s tenure only comparable to the minuscule return the Phillies received for Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle and his nearly unforgivable signing of Adam Eaton.
When discussing the Jonathan Papelbon contract, many Phillies Nation readers aptly pointed out that from 2009 through 2011, Lidge received nearly the same per year contract value that Papelbon will be paid. This is true. It is also true that even a cursory exploration of comparing the seasons leading up to both extension, Papelbon was leaps and bounds the better pitcher.
Using fWar from FanGraphs and a concept they introduced, when comparing nth best seasons, only Lidge’s stellar 2004 compares to how well Papelbon pitched in any of his first six seasons. To put things in perspective, Lidge’s stellar 2008 would only be good enough for a tie for Papelbon’s fourth best season.
So what exactly does this mean? For one, it does not necessarily mean the Phillies got a bargain when they signed Papelbon, but it does mean they are shrewder now than they were in 2008. The move to extend Lidge midseason made sense and gave them position and cost certainty for 2009 with a player having what appeared to be a career year at age 32, but it also committed 8% of their payroll to their closer. Papelbon’s $12.5 million is close to 7% of the Phillies estimated 2012 payroll for a significantly better closer whose is closing out games for a significantly better pitching staff with no Major League injury track record.
Looking back, Lidge’s contract at the time should have been seen as a mistake. The good news? The Phillies, even heading into 2009, were relatively unstable with attendance and they weren’t quite the local television power they currently are now. They were able to weather the financial blow caused by Lidge’s missed time and still add payroll in mid-season trades in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Even in the worst case scenario, a complete bomb-out by Papelbon, the Phillies, who were in a much weaker and less stable economic position in 2008 when the Lidge extension was signed, will undoubtedly be able to recover.
Yet, there is no doubt that comparing Lidge’s and Papelbon’s contracts are like comparing apples to oranges but what can be compared is how effectively the Phils are choosing to spend their money. $12.5 million per year right now for Jonathan Papelbon is a much safer and better risk than spending $12 million per year for Brad Lidge in 2009.