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What Should the Red Sox Do with Jonathan Papelbon After the Season?

Jonathan Papelbon (Image: Stan Grossfeld, Boston Globe)

Last year, a friend emailed me some photos of the Red Sox 2007 ALCS victory dance debacle. In those pictures, front and center was Jonathan Papelbon, dancing with a Bud Light box on his head. At that very moment, he looked so much more intelligent than anytime he took the mound in 2010. Last year was not a good year for “Pap.” He gave up eight blown saves and had an ERA of 3.90. The warning notice was put out on Papelbon.

With the rise of Daniel Bard and “Pap’s” impending free agency in 2011, it made perfect sense for Boston to move him. But, the Sox stayed put and “Pap” remained on the team. Then, in the off-season, the Red Sox acquired former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks. It seemed pretty certain that all signs pointed to the door for Paplebon.

A Season of Redemption?

But, that was last season. Now, with a fresh start, Bobby Jenks lost in obscurity and money to be made this winter, Papelbon his very quietly having a great year statistically. “Pap’s” ERA this season is lower than last year’s (3.59, however, still high by closer standards), his WHIP is 1.10 (league average is 1.31) and he’s converted 23-of-24 saves, as of July 29th.  Now, this isn’t as dominant a year as he had in 2007, but it’s an excellent bounce back to what was the case last season. Papelbon, right now, is doing more than enough to convince the Red Sox that they shouldn’t just do away with him and move on.

Papelbon has been the team’s closer for six years. He was originally slated to be a starter, but then was moved into  the closer’s role (replacing Keith Foulke) and absolutely flourished. During this time frame, only Milwaukee’s Francisco Rodriguez has recorded more saves per season than Papelbon. Also, he’s fourth in save percentage, trailing Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria. Let’s not forget that it took the Red Sox franchise leader in saves 26 post season innings to make his first mistake, a two-run single to the then Angels outfielder Vladimir Guerrero. Even though the mistake cost the Sox the game, it was still an impressive feat.  You can say all you want about the closer role being an overrated position, but it’s a position that comes with an immense amount of pressure and Papelbon has accepted that since day one on the job.

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

Of course, numbers and statistics only represent one side of the Red Sox closer. On the other hand, Papelbon tends to rub some of the fans the wrong way with the things he says and does. Papelbon isn’t above making a fool of himself. As was mentioned before, his dancing during the 2007 post season was absolutely cringe inducing. In 2008 he said that he should have been the closer of the All-Star game over Mariano Rivera, a comment that had a lot of baseball writers up in arms. And who could forget in 2006 when he cut his hair to look like Charlie Sheen’s character Rick “wild thing” Vaughn from the film Major League. The fact that NESN covered his haircut as a feature story, made me lose faith in humanity.  I get that some people just don’t like his attitude…when he’s failing. It’s hard to put up with a player’s ego when he’s not producing. I’ve always been keen to the notion that as long a player is productive, I don’t care what they say, just as long as they do their job. This is why 2010 was such an extra frustrating year and it’s also why my lobbing for him to stay a Red Sox may be polarizing to some readers.

Set-up, Punchline

The Red Sox aren’t moving Bard into the closer’s role this season and they probably won’t do it in 2012 either . If they were going to do it, last season would have been the year.  More importantly, why would Theo and the front office want to tamper with this impeccable one-two punch they have going for them? Sure, they could get off cheap, let Papelbon go, collect the arbitration draft picks and end up with what could be a great closer in Daniel Bard. Sounds great on paper, but where are they going to find another top-notch set-up man who even comes close to what Bard is doing in 2011? The Red Sox should really try their best to keep this combo together. These two in the late innings can do some pretty big things. They easily could end up being one of the best late inning combos, right behind the John Wetteland/Mariano Rivera machine of the mid-to-late 90’s.

What to Expect This Offseason?

There will be a depth of names in the talent pool: Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Capps, Francisco Cordero, Frank Francisco, Ryan Franklin, Brad Lidge, Joe Nathan, Fransico Rodriguez, Rafael Soriano, Jose Valverde, Kyle Farnsworth, Ryan Madson and finally, Vincente Padilla. It’s a good-sized list, especially for the position in question. But the large amount of names won’t affect the four-time All-Star’s asking price. Oftentimes, when there are so many options at a specific position during free agency, it tends to water down the market. This may not be the case this winter. With the exception of Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton and Rafael Soriano, many of these names are either often injured or just plain inconsistent. With the level of uncertainty that many of these pitchers possess, this certainly helps Papelbon’s case to stand at he top of the list.

With that note, he stands to make some serious cash this winter. I’m predicting that it’s going to take a five to six-year contract to keep Papelbon in Boston. The Red Sox are going to try to offer him a three-year deal. I seriously doubt that Boston is going to give him any more years than that. It would be the perfect amount of years and it leaves the Sox with a lot of options if the Papelbon of 2010 (the bad one) makes his return for good. He’s not going to get the big money, or a six-year deal here in Boston. He’ll have to venture out on his own to get that contract. It’s tough to say where he could get that big contract.  St.Louis, the White Sox, Cubs and even the Angels all seem like good possibilities.  “Pap’s” going to have a lot of pull at the end of the season, he is the star of the free agent closers, and he can go dance with a box on his head wherever he pleases next year.

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