Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein held nightly meetings with beat writers each day of the winter meetings last December in Florida. On one of those nights, we entered his hotel suite to find a dry-erase board with a list of players' names, something that was whisked down in a heartbeat once staffers realized a few of us had caught a glimpse.
Since it would no longer qualify as spilling the beans, it is worth noting that one of the columns had "C.C." scribbled at the top. That was for Carl Crawford, who at the time had not been linked very heavily to the Sox, if at all.
Make of that what you will. It's neither here nor there when discussing the organization's top priorities for the 2011-12 offseason. When that list is made in an office or hotel suite somewhere, the initials that should appear at the top are J.P.
Renewing Jonathan Papelbon is the No. 1 priority of the winter. OK, well, maybe after finding a new manager, but at least in terms of those involving players. It has to be, for so many reasons, not the least of which is the simple fact that he is a great closer.
Although he was on the field when it all came to a crashing halt last week in Baltimore, Papelbon rediscovered his dominance in 2011. In addition to going 4-1 with 31 saves in 34 chances, his WHIP of 0.933 was the lowest it had been since 2007, perhaps his most dominant season to date. His remarkable strikeout-to-walk ratio of 8.70 was the second-highest mark of his career. Papelbon's strikeout rate of 12.2 per nine innings was the third-highest mark in the AL among pitchers with more than 50 innings. He was just about automatic for more than two months of the season straight through the dog days, converting 25 straight saves and tying a career high with 22 consecutive scoreless innings.
This is not a man on the downside of his career. Epstein himself indicated as much in his postmortem press conference last week at Fenway Park.
"I actually told Pap earlier today that he took his overall game to a new level this year, not just on the field but again demonstrating some leadership capabilities," Epstein said. "There was a time earlier in his career where I never thought I'd say that about Pap. But he really matured. He grew up as a Red Sock and I was proud of him the way he took that next step to lead by example a little bit, and we'd love to keep those guys if we could."
That maturity came to the forefront in more ways than one. Papelbon has evolved into one of the more accountable figures in the clubhouse, an aspect of the in-season roller-coaster ride that can never be undervalued. His "it's all on me" session with reporters after a big blown save against Baltimore on the final homestand of the season spoke to that. Papelbon also exemplified that get-on-my-shoulders mentality as well as he ever has with an awesome performance in a must-win scenario at New York on the final Sunday of the season.
Those 2 1/3 perfect innings allowed the Sox to claw their way to a dramatic win, and you had the sense that Papelbon would've pitched into the following morning if that's what it took.
Indeed, Papelbon has the reputation of a nutty fellow, but that's engendered through visions of his step-dance celebration. He's never nutty when pressed into duty, and is a far more measured individual inside the clubhouse than most think.
Some may fear giving a big-money contract to a soon-to-be 31-year-old closer. However, this is a position that ages quite well. There are the obvious figures in Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. But consider that the MLB leader in saves in 2001, Jose Valverde, will be 34 by Opening Day 2012. Heath Bell, a guy that was a popular target at the trade deadline this season, just turned 34. J.J. Putz (45 saves, 2.17 ERA) and Kyle Farnsworth (25 saves, 2.18 ERA) both had rebirths in their mid-30s. Francisco Cordero had 37 saves as a 36-year-old.
History is dotted with similar examples. Lee Smith, John Franco, Billy Wagner and many others high on the all-time saves list were getting guys out well into their 30s. Rollie Fingers won his only Cy Young Award (and MVP) at the age of 34. Dennis Eckersley did the exact same thing as he approached his 37th birthday.
Critics of this argument might say that those guys were unique, that they were special. Well, so is Papelbon. In 2011 alone he became the fastest to ever reach the 200-save mark and became the first man to ever record 30 saves or more in each of his first six full seasons. His 2009 ALDS loss against the Angels notwithstanding, Papelbon's postseason resume is sparkling.
It only seems as if Papelbon is a bit more on the back end of things because he's been a fixture here since the 2005 stretch run. But he is still well within the prime years for many closers and already well ahead of the pace set by many of the greats.
Papelbon gets uneasy when compared to Rivera. Frankly, it may be the best comparison we can make. Their numbers at this stage of their careers are very similar (Papelbon's are better in many significant categories), and Rivera was also 30 when he neared the end of his arbitration years. The Yankees bought out the final year of that as part of a four-year deal signed before the 2001 season and have since added seven more years to Rivera's tenure. For their loyalty, they've been rewarded with over 400 more saves and many of the finest years of Rivera's career (his ERA has been under 2.00 in eight of the last nine seasons).
The Sox could find a similar reward if they only pony up.
The Red Sox broke down in September for many reasons, but at the top of the list (no dry-erase board needed to figure this one out) was starting pitching. Not too far down from there was Daniel Bard's slump. Boston doesn't plan for those to remain areas of concern in 2012, but the instability there lends even more support for what should be the top priority of the offseason.