MILWAUKEE – What do you do when you watch your longtime All-Star closer become the first high-profile free agent to switch teams? If you are the Red Sox, then in all likelihood, you dig in and begin what could be a protracted waiting game for his replacement.
While it was certainly a foreign sight to see Jonathan Papelbon don his new Phillies uniform at his introductory press conference on Monday afternoon, the fact that the four-time All-Star was being introduced by <insert team here> was anything but surprising in the Sox front office. The team had been anticipating this outcome for years.
Papelbon had always made clear his desire to receive top-of-the-market money. Aside from on a short-term deal (such as the series of one-year deals to which the Sox signed Papelbon), the Red Sox consistently have been reluctant to confer such deals on relievers. Under former GM Theo Epstein, the Sox signed just one reliever -- closer Keith Foulke – to a deal that included a three-year guarantee.
Early in Papelbon’s career, it became clear that there likely would never be a match between the player and the Sox on a multi-year deal. There was some tire kicking, but that went nowhere, and ultimately, according to one source familiar with the history of negotiations, there were no formal offers of a long-term deal to buy out free agent years.
All of that had the Sox preparing for Papelbon’s departure for some time. The decision to sign Bobby Jenks last offseason -- a deal that included performance bonuses for games finished -- represented an effort to add roster alternatives in the likely event of Papelbon’s departure.
In Jenks, the Sox hoped, they would acquire a pitcher with both the stuff and the track record that could suggest the ability to take on ninth-inning duties. That, in turn, would allow the Sox to either keep Daniel Bard in the flexible setup role in which he had become arguably the team’s most important bullpen weapon (at least until his horrific September) or to experiment with having him get stretched out as a starter.
Jenks’ health woes (a pulmonary embolism that has delayed back surgery) have reduced him to the status of an X-factor, with the result being that Bard will come to spring training as a reliever. Nonetheless, the nature of the Sox’ contingency planning offered a fairly clear portrait of where the team thought things stood with Papelbon.
The Sox knew that their closer had put himself in position to earn top dollar on the free agent market through an elite performance that benefited both the pitcher and the team. The Sox also knew that he was in line to receive precisely the sort of contract that they try to avoid giving players at a position where volatility is the norm (unless the player is Trevor Hoffman or Mariano Rivera). Finally, the Sox had long placed a significant premium on the draft picks that they could acquire if, and almost certainly when, the pitcher departed in free agency.
All of that made it a “ho-hum” event, in the words of one source familiar with the team’s thinking, when word of Papelbon’s record-setting four-year, $50 million deal with the Phillies emerged. There were, according to WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford, three teams besides the Phillies that showed significant interest in Papelbon. The Sox were not among them.
The Sox had yet to make an offer, GM Ben Cherington acknowledged. He had discussed with Papelbon’s agents the type of deal that the closer was seeking. And in those discussions, it became clear that there was not a deal to be had at this stage of the calendar.
“We weren't going to be able to bridge that gap at this point in the offseason. We certainly wanted to leave the door open if we get deeper into the offseason and circumstances change for either side,” Cherington said last week. “At this point in the offseason, this early, there wasn't enough common ground so we didn't make an offer.”
Cherington’s answer was revealing not just about how the Sox were approaching Papelbon, but also how the team is likely to approach the closer market going forward. Unless a closer is so smitten with the idea of coming to Boston that he is willing to accept a deal entirely on the team’s terms, the Sox will sit back and wait. They are not looking to make quick strikes in the free agent market for closers right now.
Initial indications suggest as much. Agent Scott Boras told reporters on Monday that he has yet to talk with the Sox about one of his clients, closer Ryan Madson, whose stuff, age and performance over the last few years suggest that he will be using the Papelbon bar in defining his own contract terms. Meanwhile, early indications are that the Sox have yet to engage in substantive talks about All-Star closer Heath Bell.
It is a winter when the market is deep with closing alternatives. Beyond Papelbon, Madson and Bell, there are pitchers such as Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez, Francisco Cordero, Frank Francisco and others who are dangling as free agents.
An agent for a free agent closer suggested on Monday that, with the Papelbon signing, the market for other closers could move quickly. However, that statement may be an incomplete portrayal.
Last winter’s market for free agent setup men offers something of a case study on the subject. At the beginning of the winter, the Tigers set a surprisingly high bar for the market with a three-year, $16.5 million deal for setup man Joaquin Benoit in November. A rush of three-year deals for middle relievers followed in December, when pitchers like Scott Downs, Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier all got three-year deals.
However, by the time Jenks signed his two-year, $12 million deal with the Sox on Dec. 16, the three-year offers had largely dried up. The teams that were uncomfortable going to such lengths in their contracts for relievers then stepped in and signed relievers, and in some cases premium relievers, to two-year deals.
This year, the closing market could take similar shape.
“You don’t have enough musical chairs. Someone’s going to be left out,” one executive said of how the closing market might shape up. “Wait and have better options at team-friendly price tags. It’s a great market to be out there for a closer.”
If the rest of the industry (aside from the Phillies) takes a conservative approach to the closing market, then the Sox could be in play for pitchers like Madson or Bell in the unlikely event that their asking price dips to two years. If that doesn’t happen, then the Sox can wait for other pitchers -- perhaps someone like Joe Nathan, now two years removed from Tommy John surgery and coming off a strong second half -- to become available on a one- or two-year deal.
Cherington has said that, when it comes to contracts for relievers, the shorter, the better. The way to acquire closers on shorter-term deals is by remaining both patient and disciplined.
There is, of course, some risk in the strategy. There could come a point when the seemingly desirable free agent options vanish. But if that happens, then the Sox do have a degree of insurance in the person of Bard, who certainly has the stuff of a closer, and now must only answer the unknown question of whether he might transition smoothly into that role.
And if Bard stumbled in the role, then the Sox could always seek to recalibrate mid-year, whether with internal candidates or by exploring the trade market. While that might seem like a high-risk strategy, numerous teams have won World Series in recent years with different closers than the one with whom they started the year. In 2011, it was Jason Motte of the Cardinals; in 2006, Adam Wainright of the Cardinals claimed the role in October; in 2005, Jenks emerged as a rookie for the White Sox; in 2003, the Marlins relied on Ugueth Urbina, whom they acquired in a trade (for Adrian Gonzalez) that year.
All of that suggests that while the Red Sox must now learn how to manage life after Papelbon, they might take their sweet time in doing so.
Rob Bradford contributed to this report.