Should the Red Sox start rethinking Jonathan Papelbon? Judging by what has transpired since the closer left town, it's worthy of conversation.
Let's get this out of the way: The likelihood of Papelbon returning to the Red Sox this season is slim.
Sure, a shock-and-awe, non-waiver trade deadline deal for Papelbon -- and even his teammate, Cliff Lee (whom the Red Sox have had interest in as recently as this past offseason) -- is a tantalizing notion. Such a trade would fill needs and create the kind of pennant-race buzz some thought wasn't an option this season.
And the fact that Papelbon has identified the Red Sox as one of the eight teams on his no-trade list (per source) shouldn't be too much of a concern. Such clauses usually are built to enhance contract terms, and if the closer believed there was a chance to win in his old haunts than something probably could be worked out.
“Yeah, I could see myself in Boston,” Papelbon told WEEI.com Monday when asked if a return might be feasible at some point during his career (while pointing out he is perfectly happy in Philadelphia). “I could see myself pitching in New York. You know me. I’ve always been the kind of guy who … I don’t really just settle, or accept things. Whatever happens in my future is going to happen. I’m not blind to that fact.”
But there is the perceived albatross that is that contract, which will, in all likelihood, pay Papelbon through 2016. He is getting $13 million each year from 2013 to 2015, with the chance to add one more $13 million year if he finishes 55 games in '15 or a combined 100 games in '14 and '15. It is the kind of financial commitment that scared off the Red Sox from bidding on the services of the closer following the '11 season, and still might represent a roadblock.
Still, the landscape has changed just enough that a reinvestment in Papelbon shouldn't be considered organizational lunacy.
Before we even broach the need for Papelbon's performance, let's look at that financial part of the equation. Remember the talk of offering Joel Hanrahan a qualifying offer following the '13 season if the then-closer turned in a solid year in order to potentially secure a draft pick? Well, that would have cost more than $13 million (albeit for one year). So, by that logic, there would have be a willingness to commit that kind of coin annually for the position.
And if you're talking longer term, it is interesting to compare the three-year, $39 million contract given to Shane Victorino to what is left on Papelbon's deal.
While the outfielder has shown value, is it dramatically more than what a pitcher like Papelbon would present? The closer is 9-for-9 in save opportunities this season, having not allowed a run in his last 17 2/3 innings. He continues to remain remarkably healthy since a 2006 shoulder subluxation, while carrying the same mindset/consistency that has been a constant for the past eight-plus seasons.
Even though you're comparing an everyday player to a pitcher who totals 70 innings, the impact of a pitcher like Papelbon arguably is just as powerful. Every World Series winner but one since '05 has had a reliever who totaled at least 45 saves, and he (along with the already-in-place solid supporting cast) certainly goes a long way to helping you get to that level.
Also, for what it's worth, the Nationals are willing to pay Rafael Soriano $14 million for the next two (and possibly) three seasons, so it also isn't like Papelbon is on an island when it comes to closer commitment.
"Just his pure physical strength, the way he takes care of himself, and the athlete that he is," Red Sox manager John Farrell said of Papelbon. "There's not moving parts that are out of sync so much that would have greater wear and tear, so he's been able to answer that durability and longevity question."
Then there is the need.
Andrew Bailey has shown signs he can close in Boston, having gone 6-for-7 in save opportunities this season (his first real test), allowing three runs over 14 1/3 innings while striking out 22 and walking just four.
But we also saw the powerful dynamic that is presented when the bullpen is stretched out by another late-inning reliever, allowing a pitcher like Bailey to secure some of the game's most important non-ninth-inning outs. That's where a pitcher like Papelbon comes in.
The trend throughout baseball is to find the undervalued reliever and bank on catching lightning in the bottle on the way to filling the closer role. The major league leader in saves, Pittsburgh's Jason Grilli, had never totaled more than two saves in any of his previous 10 big league seasons.
After the freak that is Mariano Rivera, you have Chicago's Addison Reed (second season as a closer), Texas' Joe Nathan (sidelined by elbow issues two seasons ago), Baltimore's Jim Johnson (dominant in the role in first season as closer; currently struggling), and St. Louis' Edward Mujica (first time closing in seven-year career). They're doing it now, but what will be the landscape three years down the road?
Other than Rivera, nobody has exhibited the health and consistent production over such a long period of time as Papelbon has. And knowing you don't have to allocate financial/personnel resources as potential stopgaps (see Mark Melancon) should offer an organization some valuable peace of mind.
"On his part? I don't know that you can say there's regret," Red Sox manager John Farrell said when asked about Papelbon's departure. "He obviously got a heck of an opportunity and a heck of a deal from Philly. I was talking with someone about this the other day. He closed here for six straight years. I don't know that you're going to see many closers do that in any market, with any team, because that means they came up through the system or converted to closer and held down that job until free agency took them elsewhere. What he did here was very rare -- not to mention the success for the length of time in which he did it."
Simply put, Papelbon was built for Boston. He plays a position of extreme value when the need for consistency is weighed in. And his production doesn't appear to be trailing off thanks to his own evolution.
"I don’t feel like I’m really that similar, I really don’t," he said. "I think a lot has changed the last couple of years for me. And I think for me I’ve become more of a complete pitcher and not just a thrower. The last year and a half in Philly now I’ve really started to become more of a complete pitcher in my mind and not just a thrower that goes out and tries to blow it by everybody."
When it comes to this player, maybe it's time for the Red Sox to rethink things.
"One, he's got a very good short-term memory, so the days that don't go well, he puts it behind him," Farrell said. "Two, people recognize Pap as the closer, but you're talking about an exceptional athlete that can channel that adrenaline or that emotion to commanding his fastball. When you see his ability to command a mid-90s fastball to the locations that he does for as long as he has, not to mention a very good split, someone who's physically durable, strong and a very good athlete, and he's got the presence of mind in those situations to channel the adrenaline. He's a rare, rare pitcher."