I think the general consensus is the Phillies didn’t do much this off-season. Some veteran pot-luck, they signed Jimmy Rollins, but the only significant change came right at the start of free agency. It seems like a long time ago now that the Phillies inked Jonathan Papelbon to a monstrous deal. And, even though Papelbon has been one of the premiere closers in the game for the past several years, the Phillies had a pretty good closer last year and this team had a perfect closer in 2008 when they the World Series. How much better will a dominant closer make the Phillies? I think there’s a sense that unless a guy is going to carry the Phillies offensively in the playoffs his contribution for the most part will be insignificant. That’s where the last two post-seasons have left the fans. It’s puts Papelbon in an interesting spot.
Over the past several years the Phillies fan base has done an admirable job of welcoming players into the fold. Halladay, Lee and Pence–all instant love affairs. You could even throw Raul Ibanez into that mix. They embraced Roy Oswalt and Mike Sweeney. Across the board, across various levels of hype and expectation, Philadelphia has been a pretty soft spot to land in recent years. All those players had one thing in common. They weren’t coming from contenders. There was no initial reason to dislike them, no previous ill will. They had no profile. That isn’t the case for Papelbon. He’s coming from Boston (a micro-step better than coming from NY) and he’s a guy people have an opinion on, and it’s not a terribly flattering opinion.
Papelbon probably doesn’t fit the mold of what most Philadelphia fans see as a “Philly Guy.” He’s got a little too much Jayson Werth in him. Please use your knowledge of Jayson Werth and your own vocabulary to fill in the appropriate adjectives. No baseball fan was sitting around here the last few years saying how they’d love to get their hands on Papelbon. Again, this has very little to do with his performance on the field. It’s all about him playing in Boston and the way he was perceived to carry himself. When he signed here, I think most fans said, OK we’ve got to figure out how to like this guy. And he better be damn good.
Part of the trouble for Papelbon is that he arrived in the off-season. This isn’t a perfect example, but look at the addition of Jaromir Jagr for the Flyers. It’d be a better example if Jagr was closer to his prime, but no one in Philly liked Jagr before this year. Not even close. Definitely NOT a “Philly Guy.” The signing was met with trepidation until Jagr pulled some moves and meshed well with Claude Giroux. Then it was all, LOVE that Jagr. We’re not the most difficult fan base to win over. If Papelbon could have blown into town mid-season and saved a game within his first 24 hours in uniform that would have diffused all these misgivings.
He’ll still get his chance to do that and it’ll happen soon enough, but in the meantime we’ve got to wonder how the Papelbon era is going to turn out. It’s going to be a great case study in the fickleness of fandom. The pressure to perform will be astonishingly high at the outset for Papelbon, but if he can live up to those expectations he has a chance to become one of the more popular Phillies. He’ll suddenly become “Our…fill in whatever adjective you used earlier.”
If you were ranking Phillies players based on their popularity with the fans you’d end up with Doc and Cliff at the top, you’d have the disproportionately popular guys like Chooch and Thome, you’d have the scapegoats like Rollins and Howard closer to the middle and then probably the Kendrick/Blanton/Schneider trio bringing up the rear. Aside from the top few spots, I really think Papelbon could end up anywhere in those rankings. I’m not going to touch on the worst-case scenario, but you know what it is, and that could be very, very ugly. He could also become even more popular than Brad Lidge was in 2008. Think great success with a little more personality. It’s up to Paps where he falls, the fans obviously, will not be able to help themselves.