Whenever Jonathan Papelbon’s career in Boston comes to an end, he will go down as the greatest closer in franchise history. The numbers bear that out, and the sheer impact he has had on the organization is remarkable, from his dominance in the postseason to his celebratory dances.
However, the Red Sox have to ask themselves if Papelbon is the type of closer whose time at the top has a limited window, or if he is one of the rare few (Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner are perhaps the only three in the past decade who can boast this) who have sustained success in this role well into their 30s. Yet even if he falls into the latter category, what are the benefits to keeping him?
Better yet, are there any reasons to let him go? There may be several.
For one, the Red Sox seem to have a worthy candidate with which to replace Papelbon in young fireballer Daniel Bard, who had a 1.93 ERA in 73 games out of the bullpen in 2010. Two, Papelbon last year had a career-high 3.90 ERA, saw his WHIP rise for the fourth straight season and had career-worst numbers in blown saves, walks and home runs allowed, all while throwing fewer innings than the previous season.
Three, with J.D. Drew and Mike Cameron also coming off the books after 2011, the absence of Papelbon would open up a pretty good chunk of change for a free-agent class that has the potential to be extremely solid. And finally, if Boston truly adheres to the “Moneyball” way of life, it would not necessarily value an established closer in a long-term capacity, despite how valuable he has been so far. Let someone else pay big money for saves, the philosophy would say.
Getting every year of Papelbon’s prime before having to sign him to a pricey free-agent deal would represent a pretty good haul for the organization. Giving Papelbon four or five more years at more than $10 million annually would represent a pretty good risk, especially given the fact that he would enter the new deal at 31 years of age.
If the Red Sox go into next offseason still unsure of things, perhaps Papelbon will make the decision for them. Unlike many of his counterparts who have come up through the system to achieve starring roles and signed long-term deals early in their careers (notably Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester) Papelbon has chosen to not have any of his free-agent years bought out, instead taking things year-by-year. The strong impression is that he wants to make the biggest impact he possibly can as a free agent once he becomes eligible after 2011.
That is Papelbon’s right. And with the rate at which teams are in need of a closer (more than half the teams in Major League Baseball had more than one pitcher record at least five saves in 2010) he’ll find someone willing to pay him many millions for several more years. That will make 2011 a monstrous contract year for Papelbon and incentive often leads to production. The four-time All-Star will have plenty on the line in his bid to erase the trials of 2010 and make himself very wealthy.
If and when he succeeds it’s a win-win situation for the two sides. The Red Sox get a sixth straight year from one of the premier closers in the game, at a time when he is as motivated as ever, and can then comfortably bid adieu without paying him big money for what could be the back end of his career. Papelbon gets a chance to earn a big paycheck for years to come.
He just might have to do it in another city.