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On Sept. 28, 2011, Jonathan Papelbon threw his last pitch as a member of the Boston Red Sox. A 1-1 splitter to the Orioles’ Robert Andino was smacked into left field for a walk off RBI hit to end Boston’s season in a dramatic collapse for the ages. The Red Sox would move on from the then free agent closer, who signed a lucrative four-year, $50 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. Since then, Papelbon has converted 58/67 saves, while the Sox have failed to establish a closer to due injuries and poor performances from recent acquisitions. But what if the Red Sox had matched Philadelphia’s offer, and Papelbon chose to sign in Boston for four more seasons instead of leaving for Philly?
Now before we delve into this possibility, note that this is all hypothetical, and assumes that the Red Sox would have made similar decisions regarding their roster based upon the signing of Papelbon as closer. That primarily includes holding on to players who were traded away, causing a chain reaction of moves. Realistically of course, trade bait players may have ended up being traded anyways in other deals to fit team needs at the time.
With Papelbon set as closer for the 2012 season, the Red Sox may not have seen the need to trade skilled utility infielder Jed Lowrie in a deal for disastrous relief pitcher Mark Melancon, who was initially seen as a closing option.
The team also may have held onto outfielder Josh Reddick, who was traded to the Oakland Athletics for closer Andrew Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney. The signing of Papelbon likely would have neutralized both trades, as the Sox wouldn’t have had such a problematic backend of the bullpen to focus on as an offseason task.
So let’s reverse these deals. Now the Sox head into the 2012 season with similar regulars, except the team also carries Lowrie and Reddick as platoon options in the infield and outfield respectfully.
Aside from Papelbon, the Sox would still face the same glaring pitching depth needs in 2012 that cost them a serious chance at competing. Boston relief pitchers would convert just 61% of save opportunities in 2012, as opposed to the 90% success rate Papelbon achieved. While the presence of Lowrie and Reddick could have made an impact with the array of injuries to the roster, the team still would have had a lousy year under Bobby Valentine.
Where the hypothetical signing of Papelbon really makes a difference is this past offseason. The Red Sox were one of the most active teams in baseball signing free agents–but they avoided signing anyone to the massive commitments that have hurt other teams across the league. They agreed to spending over $22 million to Shane Victorino and Stephen Drew combined, two players who may never have been targeted in our scenario.
While Victorino has been fun to watch on both sides of the ball, he’s only played about 2/3 of the Sox total games to this point due to recurring injuries. Drew has played a similar number of games, but hasn’t been nearly as productive, batting just .228 entering Tuesday night. So while we’re not writing off either player as a significant contributor to the success of the 2013 Red Sox, is there any doubt Papelbon would be more valuable on a team that has 10 blown saves between three closers?
Whether or not the Sox look into potentially trading for Papelbon at this year’s trade deadline, the team undeniably let an excellent closer walk, creating the most significant weakness on a team this season that has a serious shot at a World Series title. The ever-changing value of a good closer is certainly measured high in Boston this year.