OK, so Jonathan Papelbon is no genius. You didn’t need to tell us, Theo. We’ve been briefed on the topic more than once over the past five years. Each time the guy opens his mouth every high school English teacher in New England instinctively reaches for a red pen.
But so what, really? Is erudite what we are looking for in a ninth-inning guy? Didn’t think so. No, we want someone closer to George “The Animal” Steele than George Plimpton. Get the ball from here to there, preferably as fast as possible. That’s it. Don’t need a philosophy to be a closer, just some guts and an out pitch (or two). The truth is that we like our closers a little mean and a little crazy, right? And Papelbon is perfect casting.
He’s also the best closer in franchise history. I’m aware that no one is going to confuse the depth of the closer position in Red Sox annals with the depth of the 1984 NBA Draft. (Only Dick Radatz can be looked at as another possibility for the top spot, but I think that given, A. Papelbon has four seasons with an ERA+ better than Radatz’s career best, and B. All the postseason stuff, it really isn’t even close.)
But that is no fault of Papelbon. All he’s done in his four-plus seasons is average 38 saves a year, strike out 10.5 batters per nine innings with a WHIP of 1.004. Sure, 2009 has been his weakest season as a closer, but that’s sort of like saying Nicole Kidman’s scene sans clothes in “Eyes Wide Shut” is her worst. You’re getting picky. Point is, in an off year there’s been maybe four closers having better seasons. And he always wants the ball and never gives you an excuse. Plus, I don’t think anyone will confuse his postseason record with Tim Wakefield’s anytime soon. How good has he been in the playoffs?
25 IP, 10 hits, 22 Ks, .640 WHIP
We’ll give Mariano Rivera top postseason billing based on the volume of work, but no one else gets a better seat than Papelbon.
So here’s where things get a little (a little more than a little, actually) tricky. Papelbon has made it clear over the past year or so that he wants to get PAID. And I’m thinking that he doesn’t mean Brian Fuentes (two years, $17.5 million) paid. Or even Joe Nathan (four years, $47 million… and Nathan is a pretty fair comp for Papelbon) paid. Nope, I suspect that he wants Big Mo money ($15 million per year) when he hits the world of free agency after the 2011 season. And why not? Isn’t he one of the three best at his position in the game today? Is he not in the prime of his career? And (this is a big one, if you remember) does Papelbon not feel that the Red Sox owe him for moving back to the bullpen in 2007? If he stayed in the rotation as planned and put up a couple of 18-7 seasons he might be looking at nine-figure contract offers when his time came (of course he may have stiffed as a starter, but I’m guessing he’s not looking at both sides here). These comments to Ben Bradlee Bradford a month into that season pretty much tell the story…
“I’m here to get my fair share of money,” Papelbon said. “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.”
So there it is. One of the best at what he does wants to be paid that way. And I have no doubt that some general manager will look at Papelbon’s history, age and the general paucity of year-in, year-out top closers and think “Sure, it’s a lot of money, but fifty million or so and I don’t have to worry about the ninth inning for the next four years? Done.”
And there is also no doubt in my mind that whatever GM makes that move will not be named Theo Epstein. It won’t be this year, might not even be next year, but when Jonathan Papelbon signs his first long-term contract – and he will sign a long-term contract – it won’t be with the Red Sox.
And I think these are the three key reasons why:
1. Of Course There is Value, But Is It Enough Value?
Would you rather have Papelbon or Jason Bay locked up for the next half-decade?
Granted, no one is going to put Bay among the top three at his position, but look at it this way: In 2008, Papelbon faced 273 batters, easily setting a career high (his 69.1 innings pitched also set a best). In 2008, Bay had 670 plate appearances.
Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that the two average those numbers for the life of a, say, four-year deal (and I think that may be kind to Papelbon. Far more likely that a closer goes down with an injury than a left fielder). That would give Bay 1,588 more chances to make an impact on a game over the four years. Okay, if Bay was Nick Green that might not seem like such a big deal, but it really is a staggering number. This is why closers generally don’t make the money an everyday player (or even starting pitcher) make. Tough to justify $15 million a year for 60 innings pitched. That’s 250 grand a frame. Let’s say Bay plays 150 games in 2010. If he was paid the same per inning he’d be pulling in $337,500,000 for the season.
This is what I’m talking about. I know, I know, there are plenty of innings that Bay stands out in left and does nothing, then jogs back into the dugout and doesn’t get to the plate while almost every inning Papelbon pitches is full of pressure. I get it. But no one is worth 250 grand an inning (except maybe Max Patkin). Just doesn’t come close to making sense.
2. Remember, There is Having Money And Then There is the Yankees
Probably fans in Pittsburgh and Kansas City don’t want to hear this, but the Red Sox do have a budget. There are limits, as we have learned over the past few seasons (and the payroll has gone down in each of the last three years).
In the world of payroll there is still the Yankees and everyone else. You can almost forgive the Yankees for giving Rivera 15 million bucks a season. Almost. They have a payroll of $201 million in 2009, 60 percent higher than the Red Sox total of $121 million. So if you go by the 60 percent rule (and assume that Papelbon and Rivera are equals, which is a stretch), the Sox could be justified in offering Papelbon nine million bucks a year. I think that’s still too much for 60-70 innings, but a three-year, 27 million dollar offer isn’t crazy. I bet that’s about as high as Theo would go for any closer (Foulke got 18.75 million for three seasons, and although he was great in 2004 I bet Theo views that move as a push at best) and there is, of course, almost no chance Papelbon would ever accept that deal.
This’ll seem dopey, but I wonder if Theo and the crew hope that Bard becomes a good closer. Maybe even very good, but not at the level of Papelbon. I think when Papelbon does go it will be fair to write that his days were numbered after his otherworldly 2006 season (only the second time in history a pitcher had an ERA under 1.00 with more than 30 saves, an ERA+ of 515). What that season did was move Papelbon to a level that demanded an eventual contract that the Red Sox will never pay a closer.
Maybe Daniel Bard will win Cy Youngs and save 50 games a season. Maybe he’ll be Craig Hansen II (not fair – he’s done more already than Hansen ever did. But you get the point). But I bet that Theo would sign for 75 cents on the Papelbon dollar if Bard ever moves to closer. Just enough to justify not keeping Papelbon but not enough to have to worry about $50 million dollar deals.
And no, if the Red Sox moved Papelbon in this coming offseason (not impossible) I don’t think Bard moves to closer in 2010. If Wagner were still around he’d be the likely choice, but assuming he’s gone as well wouldn’t Saito be more than serviceable? The club has an option on Saito for short money in 2010, and while he won’t be Papelbon, if healthy he’ll save 30-35 games with an ERA below three and a decent WHIP. And if Bard shows he’s ready then he’ll take over in 2011 (assuming Papelbon is gone).
Don’t blame Papelbon for getting a little too sensitive over all the Wagner stuff. And when he does leave Boston don’t blame him when he plays the “disrespect” card while laying one of the all-time blast jobs on Theo. I sometimes wonder how much of Papelbon’s persona is shtick, but of this there is no question: the guy has pride of ownership. Closer of the Boston Red Sox is a prime piece of baseball real estate, and Papelbon does cherish the role. And while I guess you can blame Theo when they decide to move on from Papelbon, at least understand why. GM of the Red Sox is a tough beat even with 120 million a year to play with. And I don’t think Epstein is ever going to spend 10 percent of that budget on 65 innings, not matter the production.
I do think, however, that there is one thing on which the two fellas do agree.
There will never be a Red Sox closer as good as Papelbon again.
And I'm guessing that is exactly how both men want it.