CLEARWATER, Fla. - The romance is gone, and now they are trying to save the marriage.
Jonathan Papelbon sure did look good to the Phillies when he hit the free-agent market in 2011. How could you not fall in love with a guy who had a mid-90s fastball, a nasty splitter, pinpoint control, a minuscule career ERA pitching in the American League East, and a World Series ring? He was the closest thing to a loaded Porsche among the free-agent closers that offseason.
The Phillies sure did look good to Papelbon, too. They had won a major-league-best 102 games the year before. They had been to the postseason five consecutive years and they were still only a couple of seasons removed from their last World Series appearance. Papelbon, of course, married for the money. The Phillies weren't just willing to give him $50 million over four seasons; they also tossed in an extra $58 just to satiate the closer's alter ego.
Two years in, and each side has seen the other without makeup.
Papelbon, despite a drop in velocity, has performed well enough, posting a 2.67 ERA and converting 86 percent (67 of 78) of his save opportunities. Only Texas' Joe Nathan has been better among the established closers available in that 2011 free-agent class, but the Phillies' huge investment in Papelbon has left them woefully short in the offensive department the last two seasons.
The biggest problem with Papelbon has been his abrasive personality, a flaw that always seems to surface and gnaw when a marriage or a season goes bad. It surely strikes a nerve with your employer, especially one that has invested $50,000,058, when you say, "I didn't come here for this," and the organization needs to make changes from "top to bottom." Papelbon said both last season.
He claims all the losing brought out the worst in him.
"I know I said a lot of things that have come in the middle of 10-, 12-game losing streaks that come out with emotion," the 33-year-old pitcher said Monday afternoon at Bright House Field as the temperature climbed above 70 degrees for the first time since the start of spring training.
He made the above remarks in Detroit when the Phillies were losing 12 of 13 games, destroying all hope that they could make a second-half run for a postseason playoff berth. Last season was the first time in Papelbon's life that he had ever been on a losing team, and that includes his time at Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, Fla.; Mississippi State University; and in Boston's minor-league system.
"I've always been an emotional-type player," Papelbon said. "That's just the way I am. This year, that emotion has turned into so much more of a positive than a negative. I'm not saying we're going to go out and everything is hunky-dory. We still have a lot of work to put in. That starts from the top with Ryno [manager Ryne Sandberg]. A lot of guys are jumping on board."
Sandberg, overseeing his first spring training as a big-league manager, welcomed the challenge of reining in his most petulant player. It is the manager who is serving as the marriage counselor.
"I'll talk with any player at any time," Sandberg said. "I'll address things as I think necessary. He had regrets about what he said. I think in some regards, from the input that I got back . . . he really wasn't sure what he said. Makes sense, doesn't it?"
Sandberg's point may be that the closer doesn't understand the ramifications of what he says sometimes, and that's certainly a dangerous character flaw. There's a zero percent chance, however, that either Papelbon, who wears No. 58, or his alter ego, Cinco Ocho, is changing at this point in a split-personality career.
"I've said a lot of things in my career that may or may not have been right," Papelbon said. "I won't take a single one back, though. I say what I say and I mean it. I'm an emotional person. I pitch emotionally. I wear my heart on my sleeve, man. That's just the way I go about it. If that's the way I'm going to continue to do it, I want you guys to know I'm a good teammate."
The Phillies obviously had concerns, because they dangled Papelbon on the trade market last July and he remained available right through the offseason. The combination of his declining velocity, his disgruntled remarks, and especially the money remaining on his contract made him impossible to trade for a fair return.
And so Papelbon remains in Philadelphia. He swears he is happy to be here, and the Phillies swear they are happy to still have him.
"I know the guy wants to win," Sandberg said. "I know he looks good in camp. I know that he's taken on a leadership role within his group. I've had those conversations with him about being on the team and being one of the guys. That's what I'm going to continue to instill in him. This is still his team, and if he's a guy who needs a lot of communication, I'll be talking to him a lot."
What Papelbon and the Phillies' chemistry needs is one and the same.
"I think losing can affect you and losing can make everything become more negative," the closer said. "It can exaggerate everything and make it worse. Winning can cover up a lot of bad things."
Win and the words and actions won't matter nearly as much.