Jonathan Papelbon Heads Deep Class of Free-Agent Closers Giving Ben Cherington Difficult Offseason Decision

Jonathan Papelbon Heads Deep Class of Free-Agent Closers Giving Ben Cherington Difficult Offseason DecisionBen Cherington has a ton of decisions to make as the newly appointed general manager of the Red Sox. And believe it or not, most of those decisions are a little bit more important than what color he's going to paint his office. 

I'd like to think that we can all agree on one thing. Cherington's most important offseason issue will be adding some starting pitching. That's even more evident on the heels of Cherington's first major announcement on Tuesday that John Lackey will indeed go under the knife for Tommy John surgery.

There are other decisions, too. Of course, he'll have to find a manager. There's also the Marco Scutaro option, although that one may be squared away pretty soon. Cherington will also have to decide whether or not the Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek and David Ortiz eras in Boston will continue for another season.

And then there's the issue of the closer. Jonathan Papelbon, fresh off a pretty dominant bounce-back season, is up for free agency this winter. 

Papelbon is coming off an incredible season in which he was one of the team's few year-long standouts, the season's final night not withstanding. However, on the other end of things, Papelbon is entering free agency in an offseason where while he'll arguably be the best closer on the market, he certainly won't be the only one.

Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Capps, Ryan Madson and Francisco Rodriguez will all be free agents this winter. So will Brad Lidge and Joe Nathan after the Phillies declined to pick up the 2012 option on Lidge, and Nathan will reportedly be bought out in Minnesota.

Taking out Broxton and Lidge (they appeared in just 39 combined games in 2011), that group of closers combined for 160 saves last season. That's not to say saves are a meaningful stats (don't stat geeks hate saves?), but rather show that that's a list of guys who can get the final outs in a Major League Baseball game.

Papelbon has stated in the past that he'd like to be paid handsomely, in the same salary level as, say, Mariano Rivera. If we were to use that as a benchmark, strictly hypothetical of course, for the Papelbon negotiations, it's important to note that Rivera made a cool $15 million last year, and he will do so again in 2012.

Of course, Cherington and the Red Sox can bring that list of impressive closers to the negotiating table to give themselves some leverage. 

Ultimately, though, if the Red Sox do want to see Papelbon back in a Red Sox uniform in 2012, they're likely going to have to pay up because it might be Papelbon who has the most leverage here.

All of those names are nice and some of them are among the best closers in the game, but Papelbon has one thing above all of them — it's an irrefutable fact that he can get it done in Boston, and he can get it done at a very high level.

It would also certainly make more sense financially to "promote" someone like Daniel Bard to the position. Cherington hinted at Bard when discussing Papelbon on Tuesday when the GM said there were a couple of "in-house" options the Sox could turn to.

That may be true, but in limited appearances as a closer, Bard has struggled some. He's also shown stretches of puzzling ineptitude usually spawned from a mechanical flaw that Papelbon so often avoids. Let's be fair, too. Bard is still young, so there certainly is time for him to put it all together. In the set-up role, he was nearly unhittable for much of the year. In short, there are much worse guys you could have in the back end of your bullpen.

Internal or external options not named Jonathan Papelbon aside, Cherington has gone on record as saying he wants No. 58 back. It would be ill-advised to say otherwise, and there's certainly a number that he and the rest of his crew won't go over to retain Papelbon.

"We'll have to see if there's a contract that makes sense for them and for us," Cherington said of the eventual negotiations between the Sox and both Papelbon and Ortiz.

Something that makes sense. It makes sense for the Sox to bring back the battle-tested Papelbon, a guy who has not only succeeded more often than not, but faced the music every time when he hasn't. But it also makes sense to move on and let Papelbon ship out of Boston and try to find a better deal in a class of closers loaded with potential replacements that could be described as "adequate" at worst.

At this rate, it's anyone's guess as to who the Red Sox' mystery manager will hand the ball to when the game needs to be closed out. It's just one of many storylines in what promises to be a fascinating offseason.

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