The Red Sox will break camp with 25 players heading north to
Boston. We begin a daily look at each position on the club, from the
projected starters to their backups. Our latest installment examines the closer.
The Fireman: In what seemed like seconds, Jonathan Papelbon's status as a can't-miss closer in the postseason took a hit in October when the Angels shocked the Red Sox at Fenway Park to steal the American League Division Series.
Like you needed a reminder, right?
Well, Papelbon doesn't seem to mind the refreshers. He has answered all questions regarding the meltdown and appears to welcome words of mortality.
"He used that last game to drive him," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said recently when asked about his closer. "Whatever it takes, I don't care. If it's me against the world or however they get to a point where they're good, I don't care. Everybody's different. There hasn't been a lot to complain about from where I sit anyway [about Papelbon]. He's been one of the very best since he took the ball."
It is that attitude on Papelbon’s part and confidence on Francona's which should give Red Sox fans no hesitation when wondering how 2009's finish will affect 2010's start. Don't worry, your closer will be fine.
About the only blip before the playoffs for Papelbon was an increase in walks. But his hits per nine innings were down slightly and his strikeouts per nine were up just a tad. The ERA of 1.85 matched the second-lowest mark of his career.
Still, when anyone thinks of Jonathan Papelbon and 2009 they will have one memory. The only way to erase such recollections is to make 2010 a better one. To do so, Papelbon has refined his splitter, which hitters held off on a bit more late last year.
"If it is taken, is there enough percentage of strikes that the opposition has to respect it?" Papelbon said earlier this spring when addressing the issue. "When those didn't happen consistently enough, anything other than a fastball spin in the hitter's eye, they would take it knowing that in the back of their mind, or through their own preparation, the most high percentage of strikes he throws is with his fastball."
The early returns are promising. Through six scoreless innings this spring entering Saturday, the 29-year-old Papelbon has yielded one harmless hit and only one walk. He has shown up, quietly gone about his work and gone home, showing a focused and sometimes shockingly silent demeanor in the clubhouse.
But it's not as if he won’t talk to you about the past. In fact, it’s fuel for the future.
Other options: Perhaps the only pitcher throwing as well as Papelbon this spring is Daniel Bard, the man many project as the future closer if and when the current one chooses to test the free agent market after the 2011 season.
Bard has the physical makeup to be a closer. We have yet to see him really tested mentally in the role and no one knows a player will react when the chips are down.
If all else fails: Chad Qualls, Brian Fuentes, Huston Street and Kerry Wood are among the potential closers we could see on the market after this season, pending options on a few of them. Mariano Rivera is also in the mix, but that seems rather unlikely.
The class of free agents after 2011 is massive at the position, just in case Papelbon walks. Jose Valverde, Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Broxton, Brad Lidge, Mike Gonzalez, Heath Bell, Matt Capps, Ryan Franklin, Bobby Jenks and George Sherrill are among a bevy of options for teams in need of a closer.
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