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After Jonathan Papelbon accepted a contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Cherington and the Red Sox must now find a new closer. There is a great multitude of options this offseason, including big name free agents and possible trade targets. There is also the greatly discussed possibility of transitioning set up man Daniel Bard to the ninth inning. The best options at the closer position come through free agency.
At the 2011 trade deadline, there was plenty of discussion that Heath Bell was going to leave San Diego for a contender, including the Red Sox at the time. He ended up staying in place and finds himself at the top of the list when it comes to the top closers available. Bell is 34 years old and coming off of his third consecutive season of at least 40 saves with the Padres, over which he had an impressive 2.36 ERA.
The downsides to Bell are strictly financial; he would request the largest contract amongst free agent closers. He may also be looking for a three-year deal, while the Sox are more likely to sign a closer to two years at most. I think that Bell’s talent makes up for it though, and if he wants to close games in Boston, then the Sox should give him what he wants to play here.
There are other options similar to Bell the Red Sox could pursue. Both Ryan Madson and Francisco Cordero had successful 2011 seasons, and could be helpful in the process of transitioning Bard to becoming a closer. Madson is only 31 years old, but is also coming off of his first season as a full-time closer in Philadelphia. With Papelbon heading to the Phillies, it would be interesting to see if the Sox sign Madson and effectively swap closers. Madson was reported to be close to a four-year deal with Philadelphia before it fell through and the Phillies instead signed Papelbon to his four-year $50 million deal. If Madson is really demanding four years, the Sox should steer clear, but a two-year contract could be a great fit.
Cordero, on the other hand, is older at 36 years old, but has a veteran presence that could be helpful in the Sox clubhouse as the team recovers from the disaster of 2011. Cordero spent the majority of his career with the Texas Rangers in the early 2000s and then ended up in Cincinnati after a brief stint with Milwaukee. He had 37 saves and a 2.45 ERA last year, but it is his consistency that is most appealing. Cordero has saved at least 30 games in five consecutive seasons and saved 49 games back in 2004 with the Rangers. Being closer to the end of his career, Cordero should come cheaper than both Bell and Madson, which could enable the Sox to still compete for other free agents this offseason.
Of course, the biggest names are not always going to be the best fit. This offseason has a great collection of closers. While they might not win the closing role for the team in 2012, relievers such as Frank Francisco, Brad Lidge, Matt Capps and even Jonathan Broxton could provide a boost to the back end of the Boston bullpen. More notable options like Francisco Rodriguez and Joe Nathan are also available, though the overwhelming persona of Rodriguez and the health concerns along with Nathan might make them too risky to invest in.
Any of these options would certainly leave the door open for Bard to try and win the closer role for himself if he desires it. As one of the most successful set up men in the game he deserves the opportunity to shine at the end of games and earn the big bucks as a closer. As of right now the Sox are reportedly not committed to having him as a closer, so it would be important for another option to exist like the closers mentioned. He’s been so good in the 8th innings of games that there is no need to change a system that has been working if someone else can replace Papelbon.
I think that the approach this offseason with regards to the closer role has to first be targeting Heath Bell. If the Red Sox can sign him to a three-year deal at a reasonable price, I believe his talent is worth the cost as they will gain one of the best closers in the game locked up for a couple of seasons in his prime. However if not Bell, I think Cordero, Nathan, or Capps are the best options for two years. While there is risk involved, any of these pitchers could fit in either of the 8th or 9th innings over the length of the contract, enabling them to work with transitioning Bard if the Sox plan to make him their closer down the road. While lots of attention will be paid to the rotation and offense, there is no doubt a major weakness of the Sox without Papelbon is the bullpen, and they need to figure out who will be closing games moving forward.