At a time when so much attention is being paid to where Jonathan Papelbon will make his residence beyond 2011, it is worth recalling the Red Sox’ good fortune that the closer has been making history for them over the past six years.
On Saturday night, Papelbon punctuated the Red Sox’ double header sweep with a perfect ninth inning of a 4-0 victory over Oakland. He threw all nine of his pitches for strikes, punching out two batters and extending his scoreless appearances streak to 16.
When he records his next save, the 30-year-old will become the first pitcher ever to record 30 or more saves in each of his first six full seasons. Yet for less than a year’s salary at the major league minimum, Papelbon could have been accomplishing that feat for the team that just left Boston rather than the one that makes its home there.
In another world, Papelbon would be a main character in the forthcoming Moneyball movie. In Oakland’s much-chronicled 2002 draft, the A’s had seven of the first 39 picks. From that group, one All-Star (Nick Swisher) emerged, while Oakland also selected one pitcher who has forged a fine career (Joe Blanton) and another player (Mark Teahen) who spent a number of years as a big league regular.
Yet that draft, which was chronicled in Michael Lewis’ book on the A’s efforts to exploit market inefficiencies, also featured one who got away, a player whom Oakland selected but did not sign. That one would be Papelbon, who was taken by the A’s as a draft-eligible sophomore out of Mississippi State in the 40th round that year.
Of course, the A’s aren’t really to be faulted for not reeling in the young pitcher. There was a reason why more than 1,000 players were selected before Papelbon’s name was called in 2002.
At the time, Papelbon had no real visions of turning pro. He’d been red-shirted as a freshman at Mississippi State, where the decision was made to turn Papelbon – a pitcher/first baseman with self-proclaimed big-time pop – into a full-time pitcher. Papelbon had bought into the idea that he had a future on the mound, and he had shown promise (2.94 ERA, 45 strikeouts in 40 innings) in his sophomore year. But his focus was not yet on turning pro, and the A’s never actively pursued him.
“For me, that first time I got drafted, I knew that I wasn’t ready,” Papelbon recalled earlier this summer, citing “maturity” as the key reason for that belief.
Given that fact, he has invested little time over the years into considering what could have been. All the same, the hypothetical has crossed his mind.
“I probably would have loved to pitch in that ballpark,” said Papelbon, contemplating the cavernous dimensions of the Oakland Coliseum. “[But] I wasn’t going to leave school early to be a freaking [undrafted] free agent or a $1,000 signing.”
Still, he had a price. For instance, Papelbon said that had he been offered an amount roughly in line with the $264,500 slot recommendation he accepted the following year, he would have been willing to sign with the A’s.
But it never came to that, and so Papelbon remained at Mississippi State for another year, thus missing out on the chance to become a chapter in Moneyball in favor of an opportunity to help forge a place in Red Sox history.
Yet even then, in the 2003 draft, Papelbon was hardly the sort of electrifying prospect whom the Sox had to have at all costs. He had amassed strong credentials as a college closer, but that wasn’t a terribly popular class of early-round draftee.
Moreover, Papelbon remained raw. At the time, former Sox amateur scouting director David Chadd once recalled, the Sox viewed him as someone with an impressive pitcher’s frame and the ability to throw a fastball hard and with command, but without a present secondary pitch.
He’d been seen on a number of occasions by Sox area scout Joe Mason. Based in part on those reports, Papelbon was one of several players whom the Sox were monitoring that year when they scouted the SEC tournament in May.
Chadd, Sox GM Theo Epstein and Assistant GM Josh Byrnes were all at the SEC tournament that year.
“He wasn’t a high-profile guy. He hit 93-94, but he had that good finish above the barrel, just like he did in pro ball. He was beating guys above the barrel,” said Epstein. “He was throwing a breaking ball that was kind of loose, but you could project a little bit more on the breaking ball.
“But you really loved the way his arm worked on the fastball. And then, you look at the stat sheet, he had something like  strikeouts and  walks or something, and it was obvious that it wasn’t just that day that he could throw over the corners. He had pretty good command and control, and a good-sized kid.”
Papelbon recalled having a 95 mph fastball during the tournament as well as his signature command of the pitch. He had some memorable moments during the SEC tournament, most notably one that would prove a harbinger of a signature future event as a big leaguer.
According to Epstein, Papelbon punched out Seth Smith of Ole Miss to end a game that he and Byrnes attended – the same outcome that the pitcher would achieve to end Game 4 and clinch the 2007 World Series. (Of course, Papelbon had also blown a save when Smith had an RBI single against him in an earlier SEC tournament game.)
It was an exciting time for the closer. With just a few weeks remaining prior to the draft, Papelbon viewed the SEC Tournament as a chance to put himself on the map.
“I knew everybody was there watching prospects. That was an adrenaline boost for me, like, OK, it’s time to go, time to show you who I am,” said Papelbon. “I did well in that tournament. It’s kind of funny because I specifically remember the games that all the GMs would go to. I remember facing Seth Smith in that tournament, and you know it all kinda came full circle facing him for the last out in the  World Series. It was kind of a surreal experience.”
Papelbon had talked at one point or another with most teams entering the 2003 draft. While he recalls his pre-draft conversations with Mason, the Sox’ area scout, Papelbon didn’t have any real inkling that the Sox were going to select him because there wasn’t a great deal of dialogue with the team in the days preceding the event.
The opening of the 2003 draft for the Sox was, in retrospect, inauspicious. Epstein was running his first draft as GM of the Red Sox, and after inheriting a farm system that was barren in the upper levels, the team was willing to sacrifice ceiling for advanced college players who were viewed as having a high probability of supplying major league depth.
Eight years after the fact, the initial handful of names taken by the Sox has delivered limited impact in the majors. First-rounder David Murphy became a tradable commodity who has forged a solid if unspectacular career with the Rangers. Sandwich pick Matt Murton, too, was dealt at the 2004 trade deadline; his biggest impact has been in Japan, where he’s emerged as a superstar.
Second rounder Abe Alvarez appeared in four big league games for the Sox. He’s out of affiliated baseball. High school outfielder Mickey Hall, a second-round selection, never spent a day in the majors in his career. Third-rounder Beau Vaughan likewise plateaued in Triple-A.
Then, the Sox turned their attention to the next name on their board.
“We put it together as we got in the draft room, and combined with the late looks we got, we liked the kid, felt comfortable with his makeup and then the performance,” said Epstein. “We didn’t do that good a job of with him because we took him after Beau Vaughan and Abe Alvarez and a bunch of other guys. But we did enough to [place] him in a spot [on the draft board] where we could get him, and he made that draft for us.”
Papelbon heard from Mason around the third or fourth round. The scout told the MSU closer that the Sox wanted him if still wanted to sign. The right-hander assured Mason that he was indeed ready to sign quickly to start his pro career, and minutes later, Papelbon – joined by his family at his college apartment – was awash in a celebration that has since become familiar territory for the closer.
“Just like when we won the World Series in ‘07, we popped a bunch of champagne,” Papelbon grinned. “I was renting a house, so I didn’t care about the damage.”
Papelbon did not get his deposit back – he recalled it being in the vicinity of $250 – but he did not care. Nor did he resent the fact that 113 players had been taken before him.
The 22-year-old recognized that his opportunity was in front of him. While he had been evaluated as a fourth-round talent coming out of college, he now had the opportunity to reshape how he was perceived.
“I didn’t care because I knew that once I got the opportunity to show my skills, that it would all unfold the way that I knew it would unfold, and show what kind of competitor I was,” said Papelbon. “You know, you might be better than me, but you ain’t gonna out-compete me. And that’s the full approach that I took through the minor leagues and still today.
“Once I got into the minor leagues, and on up into the big leagues, you see that everybody has enough talent to be good, and enough talent to play professional baseball. I tried to figure out what separated All-Star players and Hall of Fame players from the average guys. To me, it was desire and heart.”
Papelbon made his pro debut that summer in Lowell. He was far from dominant – he had a 6.34 ERA in 13 appearances, albeit with 36 strikeouts and nine walks in 32 2/3 innings.
Epstein’s chief recollection of his first viewing of Papelbon once he’d entered the Sox’ system had little to do with his performance on the mound. Instead, the GM had an unusual prism through which to view his pitcher’s competitiveness when Papelbon faced off with Yankees prospect Jeff Karstens in a cow-milking contest.
Papelbon won that contest, but it wasn’t until the following year that he began opening the eyes of the organization on the mound. He worked his way into shape during the offseason (in part by getting a job doing manual labor in a Budweiser plant) and began dominating while traveling a minor league fast track in 2004.
In many ways, the draft is now a distant memory for Papelbon. Through a process over which he had little control, he found his way to the perfect destination. Regardless of what the future holds, the memory of his entry into life as a Red Sox will always assume a prominent place in Papelbon’s career memories.
The presence of the A’s offered a reminder about how different things could have turned out, as well as, in the end, how perfectly they came together for the pitcher and team in June 2003.
“You look back and you’re like, man, the way the draft unfolded, anything could have happened. I could have been in Oakland. I could have been anywhere else, and I mean this is just where I am,” said Papelbon. “[The memory of the 2003 draft] is up there, because that’s day one. That’s day one of a long string of many good things and many bad things and many ups and many downs, and fortunately for me, at this point in my career, I’ve had more ups than downs.”