In Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon, the Red Sox have a tandem at the back end of their bullpen that is among the best in baseball. Over the past month or so, none have been better. For all the talk of MVP candidates on this team, that pairing has been about as significant as anything else.
And yet it may be in its waning months of existence.
With Papelbon in the final year before free agency and Bard a prime candidate to slide into the closer's role, there is a chance that the back end of the bullpen could have an altered appearance in 2012. While there are no guarantees either way, what the Red Sox have is just too good a thing. Finding a way to keep them together might be (should be?) the priority of the offseason.
Sure, that goes against organizational philosophy and Papelbon may seek more years than Boston will want to offer a closer approaching his 31st birthday. And sure, some will just consider this a contract push for him. And yes, Bard is a natural replacement in the closer's role.
However, the organization has never had a closer like this, much less one paired with someone as dominant in the setup role. And to say Papelbon is simply having a great year at a convenient time for him is ignoring the fact that his career has been filled with great years. Until someone can quantify the actual effect of impending free agency on a player's performance, that's nothing more than wild speculation, made even more wild when used against a player who has had so few hiccups in his career.
Finally, if Bard is a natural replacement to take over as closer, then who is the natural replacement to take over in his spot? Terry Francona never hesitates to discuss the incredible value of that role. It is his crutch.
Friday night in Seattle offered up the latest example.
Boston held a 6-4 lead in the bottom of the seventh, but the Mariners had two men in scoring position and Miguel Olivo, the team's leader in home runs and RBIs, was striding to the plate. Enter Bard, who put away Olivo with an unfair slider and then walked to the dugout with that quiet, confident stride that has become his trademark.
Move along. Nothing to see here. We've got things under control.
Bard got through the eighth, finishing his 13th effort this year of more than one inning with two more strikeouts, and Papelbon never saw danger in the ninth. For the closer, it extended his run of consecutive saves to 22, the longest such single-season streak in his career.
Papelbon's scoreless streak is at 12 innings. During that surge, which began in the midst of Bard's 25-game scoreless streak, he has yielded three hits, struck out 13 and walked none.
This year, as the Red Sox rotation has provided the fourth-fewest innings per start among American League teams, the bullpen's rise has been the critical component in the rise to first place. Yes, the offense produces the numbers that fans will talk about for years to come, but nothing holds water unless the relievers do their job and make those runs — however many they are on any given night — hold up.
As much faith as the team has in Bard, that luxury suddenly becomes a question mark if and when Papelbon is no longer in the mix. Candidates to fill in Bard's role will be brought in, but that's no sure thing. The Bobby Jenks situation says all you need to know about the fickle nature of fixing a pen on the fly.
It was in February down in Fort Myers when Papelbon held his first large-scale meeting with reporters, some of whom asked questions concerning his status beyond 2011. Several minutes in, he finally stiffened and fired back.
"Why does everyone assume [I am gone after 2011]? For me, that’s an assumption," Papelbon said. "I don't think that every time I play that this is going to be my last time in a Red Sox uniform or this could be my last time with the Red Sox. I'm not going to think about that."
The Red Sox ought to do what they can to prevent thoughts of him leaving.