By the time you read this, a deal could have been struck. Jonathan Papelbon very well might have already agreed to a contract that allows him to avoid arbitration for a second straight year.
But if that hasn't happened yet ... well, things could get interesting.
The Red Sox and Papelbon have until noon Tuesday to come to an agreement on a contract before salary arbitration figures have to be exchanged. Last year, it never got to that point, with the two parties agreeing to a one-year, $6.25 million deal literally minutes before having to present their respective numbers.
Papelbon said he wanted to set the bar, and he did, breaking a record for the highest figure given to a first-time arbitration-eligible pitcher.
This year, the Sox closer might be on the verge of history once again, this time due to an altogether different dynamic. Papelbon’s situation could be leading him to something no Red Sox player has experienced since Theo Epstein took over as general manager following the 2002 season — an actual arbitration hearing.
The closest the Sox have come to going head-to-head with a player and his agent in a hearing was back in 2007, when they settled with outfielder Wily Mo Pena just before entering the room where the proceedings were to take place. Other than that, there’s been nothing within shouting distance of a hearing.
But if nothing can be settled before noon on Tuesday and salary figures are submitted, there will be a very good chance we could see one of the more intriguing arbitration hearings baseball has seen in quite some time.
THE MARKET ISN’T PARTING THE CLOUDS
The 29-year-old has seen the contracts given to Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jon Lester, and he wouldn’t mind being the next block in the Red Sox’ foundation. He certainly is open to that kind of multiyear deal, despite his declarations that he has absolutely no problem throwing caution to the wind and climbing the salary ladder via one-year deals. The problem for Papelbon is that Red Sox aren’t thinking along the same lines as they were with the previous three arbitration-eligible cornerstones.
Now, the closer isn’t alone in his willingness to go from year to year in regard to his contractual situation. The Red Sox are more than willing to go the same route as well.
While Papelbon has continued his quest to bring the salary structure for closers more in line with that of starters — having done his part with the deal of a year ago — the rest of the market hasn’t cooperated, a notion that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Red Sox.
When the offseason’s biggest signing for a closer is Jose Valverde’s two-year, $14 million deal, the needle isn’t exactly being moved.
And while Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez did sign a three-year, $37.5 million deal prior to last season that could realistically vest into a four-year deal that would pay him $17.5 million in that final season, closers are still waiting for that kind of transcendent contract for which they thought Mariano Rivera’s three-year, $45 million deal was setting the stage. Nothing (other than Rodriguez’ deal, or perhaps Joe Nathan’s four-year, $47 million agreement) has come close.
When it comes to making a case for Papelbon ascending into the next level of history-making money-making, Rodriguez’ case might be his best ally. And we’re not talking about the deal he signed with the Mets prior to the 2009 season, but rather his final go-round with arbitration the offseason before.
Rodriguez lost his final arbitration case, getting awarded the $10 million figure presented by the Angels instead of the $12.5 million he had been asking for.
At that point in time, Rodriguez had totaled 146 saves in 173 opportunities (an 85 percent save success rate) over his five big league seasons. Through four years, Papelbon has notched 151 saves in 169 chances, good for an 89 percent success rate. It was determined that the then-Angels closer was worth somewhere between $10 million and $11.5 million, which might be where Papelbon is looking to land for the coming season.
Papelbon also will be pointing to the present as well as the past, having come off a season in which he converted 38 of 41 save chances while compiling a 1.85 ERA and .213 batting average against. And while there were noticeably more walks (24) and pitches per inning (17.4), the rest of the reliever’s numbers lined up favorably with his previous seasons.
But all of that doesn’t figure to offer the kind of evidence that would make the Red Sox veer from their short-term strategy in regards to Papelbon.
WHY THE RED SOX CAN DIG IN
Papelbon clearly is one of the best relief pitchers in Red Sox history, and he is heading into his prime. But that doesn’t figure to alter the organizational viewpoint or philosophy when it comes to looking at the reliever’s long-term future.
First off, the team almost never gives multiyear deals to relief pitchers. The only reliever to receive a deal of as many as three years from the club has been Keith Foulke. And while you could make the argument that closers distinguish themselves from the rest of their relieving brethren, and the Sox haven’t had anybody at the end of the 'pen other than Papelbon since Foulke left, there still is a philosophy when it comes to all relievers.
All teams, not only the Red Sox, are hesitant to give relief pitchers long-term deals because of the volatility of the position. Gone are the days of the five-year contracts given to Billy Wagner and B.J. Ryan.
And, in Papelbon’s case, the Red Sox are armed with added ammunition in the sense that they possess another viable option (Daniel Bard), while the team also will likely point to the decreased swings and misses (33.6 percent in 2007, 24.3 percent in ’09) produced by the current Sox closer. There was also the absence of what used to be an out-pitch for Papelbon, the split, throughout last season.
The reality is that the Red Sox have two more seasons, no matter what happens, of controlling the closer’s contract situation, and regardless of any back-and-forth, or potential arbitration ugliness, that is the ultimate edge.
THE CASE PAPELBON WILL MAKE
Through all the analysis and comparisons, the reality remains that Papelbon is one of the best closers in the game, and if he did go on the open market tomorrow he would most likely make something in line with Rodriguez’ deal.
One aspect of Papelbon’s case that does separate him from many of the other closers looking for Rivera’s kind of cash is what happened prior to the 2007 season. It was then the Red Sox asked the pitcher to forgo the plan of re-entering life as a starter so that he could head back into the bullpen.
Everybody knew at the time that the switch, while undeniably the best thing for the Red Sox, had a good chance of curtailing Papelbon’s earning power down the road. It also wasn’t a surprise that the potential financial conundrum was clearly on the pitcher’s radar.
This is what he said a month into the ’07 season:
“I’m here to get my fair share of money. My main priority is to stay healthy and be able to make money, not to go out and try and hurry up and win a championship this year [at the risk of injury]. It’s not like I’m hurrying up and going back to the closer’s role because we have a good team this year and I’m going to blow [my arm] out and try and win as many games as we can [at any cost]. No, it’s not going to happen.
“I’ve got a lot of money to be made in this game, whether it’s with Boston or not. My goal is to make sure I’m ready to play every day and to make money, and you can’t make money if you’re sitting on the bench. That’s the way I look at it.”
“I have no problem waiting because I believe now I have a program in place where I can throw for the next 10 years, which is a big deciding factor. There is no uncertainty on my end. I’m here to do this thing for the next 10-12 years. It’s not about just winning a championship this year and then, boom, I’m out of the game.
“To me, my health is a little more important, and staying in the game for the next 10-12 years. To me, my goal is to stay healthy and be able to contribute, and if I can do that, then I should be able to get paid in a good way. For me, it’s a thing if I can benefit well from it and the Red Sox can benefit well from it, then I’ll do it. But if I’m not going to benefit ... I think both parties have to be happy.”
Papelbon hasn’t veered from his road map, going to great lengths to stay healthy via his daily arm/shoulder-strengthening program and through communication with the Red Sox decision-makers regarding his workload. But every time a contract similar to John Lackey's (five years, $82.5 million) gets signed by a starter, the sacrifice made back in ’07 is brought to the surface.
There is also the value that comes with Papelbon’s ability to pitch in a place like Boston, and in months such as October. While most are still left with the memory of the horrific ninth inning in Game 3 of the Red Sox’ American League Division Series against the Angels, there was the remarkable postseason run the closer found himself on prior to ’09.
Anytime you can hang your hat on a major league record — such as the one Papelbon possesses in starting his career with 26 straight scoreless postseason innings — that's arbitration ammunition, regardless of most recent impressions.
SO, ABOUT THAT HEARING …
There is a reason the Red Sox have been motivated to stay away from the arbitration hearings. Any time you have to put one of your players in a room so that the team can bombard said player with all his faults, it is not a productive endeavor (especially with reporting dates just days away).
That kind of concern would be seemingly heightened in the case of Papelbon, whose emotions and intensity are what helps him operate the way that he has.
This wouldn’t be Wily Mo Pena in that room. It would be Jonathan Papelbon. There’s a big difference. The closer always has thrived on bits and pieces of doubt for motivation, but this might be taking it to another level.
It all may be moot, with another one-year deal having been hashed out. But if not, well, the arbitration season (and Papelbon’s future with the Sox) will have gotten exponentially more interesting.