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Philadelphia Phillies' Jesse Biddle, left, attends spring training in Clearwater, Fla., on Monday, Feb. 17, 2014. (David Maialetti/Philadelphia Daily News/MCT)

Phillies' Papelbon shrugs off doubters

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Philadelphia Phillies wanted to trade Jonathan Papelbon, a reality the $50 million reliever said he avoided this winter by watching "Dora the Explorer" with his children. There were no takers for the eccentric pitcher.

His manager, Ryne Sandberg, wondered if Papelbon is ever totally sure of what comes from his mouth. For 20 minutes Monday, Papelbon spoke in bromides. He ignored the trade talk.

"I didn't even know about it, to be totally honest, man," Papelbon said. "That goes on every year, man. I understand this game is a business. I get that, man. I don't pay attention to it, man. I'm at home, man."

He promised to be more of a positive influence in the clubhouse but did not admit to being a poor one in the past. His comments mirrored those of last spring, and that was before controversial comments during the summer distanced him from some teammates.

He questioned the previous management under Charlie Manuel, saying a "set environment" did not respond to constant losing. He lauded the atmosphere established by Ryne Sandberg. He shunned pessimistic predictions for the Phillies.

"If I was a gambling man, I would take us," said Papelbon, who transports a large container labeled "Cinco Ocho Casino" on every road trip.

The Phillies will not care what Papelbon says or thinks should he recapture the fastball that fashioned him as one of the game's best closers. His strikeout numbers plummeted in 2013. The opposition batted .308 against Papelbon after the all-star break. He ranked 29th out of 32 in save percentage (80.6 percent) among closers with 20 or more opportunities. Many outings were laborious.

The proof was in Papelbon's declining velocity, and there are differing opinions on the cause. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. blamed the team's record and bleak fate. Papelbon said a hip injury nagged him for much of the season.

His fastball traveled at an average velocity of 92.2 mph in April, according to Pitch F/X data. It dipped to 91.7 mph in August and 90.9 mph in September. He threw 95 mph during 2011, his last season with Boston.

Any clarity this spring is doubtful.

"My role is an intensity-driven role, so on nights when the ballpark is full and it's a close game, that's what makes me tick, and we're in a race," Papelbon said. "That's the big reason I've always decided to be a closer is when the dial is turned up and there is something on the line, I just seem to be at my best.

"When it's a day game in New York and you're 12 games behind, that dial ain't really turned up. That ain't really how I go. I'm sure velocity has something to do with that, but you know I don't feel like I was at my healthiest I could have been last year and I had to grind through some things here and there."

Scouts who watched Papelbon at the conclusion of 2013 filed dismissive reports. Can Papelbon be effective with the talent he displayed last August and September?

"You know what? That's all hypothetical," Sandberg said. "Once again, that's last year. I'm anxious to see where he's at in two weeks, three weeks, six weeks. He's got the attitude out there. I like all that. He's used to that role. He's not afraid of anything."

Sandberg avoided the pressing issue, the one that will linger over Papelbon until he proves otherwise. For now, his mouth is what draws attention.

"I like my players," Sandberg said. "I like all my players. It's my job for me to get the best out of them and form them as a group."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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