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After a disastrous September torpedoed the Red Sox in the playoff race, a significant number of decisions will have to be made this offseason to impact the future of the franchise. The end of Terry Francona’s run as manager was the first notable change, and now with the emptiness of October baseball in the background attention in Boston has turned to the team roster. Amongst the decisions to be made is the future of Jonathan Papelbon, who has long been thought to be heading for a large contract as a top closer outside of Boston. However, the struggles of the team in the final month have changed the landscape of things, with everything up in the air.
Papelbon noted after the heartbreaking conclusion to the Red Sox season that he wouldn’t let his poor performances down the stretch define his future, but it should be interesting to see how much the Red Sox make of his struggles in their negotiations. Coming into this year, it was believed that set up man Daniel Bard could make a smooth transition to the ninth inning to fill the void left by Papelbon in free agency, but that seems like an unlikely solution after Bard’s similar struggles this season. In the month of September, Bard allowed 13 earned runs in just 11.0 innings with an alarming nine walks. A comparison of both he and Papelbon shows why throwing $10 million plus at Papelbon might be the smartest option.
Aside from San Diego Padres closer Heath Bell, there is no better option for the Red Sox to close out games in 2012 than Papelbon. Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays seem to be able to use a closer by committee system because of their great starting rotation, however one of the biggest problems for Boston is the high priced starters clogging spots in the rotation, namely John Lackey. Throwing more money at the reliever with no experience pitching in an intense market like Boston isn’t smart when Papelbon has already proven to be one of the best closers in the history of the Sox, and becoming the first closer ever to record 30 or more saves in each of his first six seasons.
Daniel Bard isn’t a reasonable solution as a closer quite yet because he hasn’t had the experience of someone like Papelbon. While it seems like Bard has been the Sox eighth inning option for many years, he really has only held the position for the last two complete seasons. In 2010 he was phenomenal, pitching nearly 75.0 innings with a 1.93 ERA, setting up most of the talk of him being a closer down the road. But this year he faltered, with a 3.33 ERA in roughly the same number of innings, and his disastrous numbers in September going along with the Sox collapse. Bard is still very young, only three years into his major league career at age 26. Meanwhile, Papelbon has been the Red Sox closer since 2006 and is at about the prime of his career at age 30.
With the franchise as shaken as they have been by the failure of 2011, the last thing the Red Sox need is more turmoil with the security of the bullpen. I think the best thing for the Red Sox to do is bite the bullet with paying Jonathan Papelbon and give him whatever he wants. It would be ideal for the Sox to be able to lock him up for two or three more seasons max, and then allow for him to test the free agent market again as a top closer as he wants. They’re much better off sticking with what they know they have instead of allowing a star player at a crucial position walk away.