Red Sox’ Looming Decision on Jonathan Papelbon Could Alter Bullpen for Years to Come

Red Sox' Looming Decision on Jonathan Papelbon Could Alter Bullpen for Years to Come By midnight on Thursday, the Red Sox must tender contracts to all unsigned players currently under their control. Any player not tendered a contract becomes a free agent.

In other words, it's an important day in the rebuilding of the Red Sox bullpen.

For the past four seasons, Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima have been the most important relievers on the Boston staff. Both have been All-Stars, the lefty setup man and right-handed closer leading the Sox to three playoff spots and a World Series championship in that span.

Now, both may be nearing the end of their time in a Red Sox uniform.

There have already been reports that the Sox will not offer Okajima a contract. No surprise there. In 2010, opposing hitters put up a .314 batting average against him, and his ERA ballooned to 4.50 — more than a run higher than any of his other MLB seasons. He was replaced in the key eighth-inning role by Daniel Bard, and by the end of the season had been limited to mop-up duty.

It seemed, after three successful years, that big league hitters had figured out his deceptive windup and were able to time their swings against his once-baffling off-speed stuff.

Efforts to turn him into a lefty specialist failed as well. Left-handed hitters were .284 against him last season, Okajima walking 10 of them in a mere 88 at-bats.

Papelbon poses a tougher decision. For the past two seasons, there was never a thought of letting Papelbon go. He was one of the most dominant relievers in the game, a perennial All-Star entering the prime of his career.

Not so in the final weeks of 2010. Papelbon is 30 years old, and he's coming off his worst season as a closer. He led the AL with eight blown saves and posted an ERA of 3.90 — a run and a half higher than any of his full seasons with Boston. He has saved 188 games for Boston, a club record, and became the first pitcher in MLB history with 35 or more saves in each of his first five full seasons.

Because of that, he will command more than $11 million in arbitration. Okajima would get some $3 million. Letting both of them go would free up some $14 million to rebuild a bullpen that was a disaster in 2010.

Rafael Soriano, Scott Downs and Grant Balfour are all available free agents. Two of them would look pretty good with Bard in the bullpen. With a little luck, newly acquired Andrew Miller and Taylor Buchholz could fit into that group as well.

Not tendering a contract to Okajima is an easy decision. Letting Papelbon walk off to another team is much more risky. There's no doubt he's got very good stuff. For the right price, he would be a coup for any team.

But $11.5 million (or so) is not the right price. For a team trying to retool its roster without hitting $200 million in payroll, finding a little financial breathing room is the first step toward reconstruction. Theo Epstein could find some of that breathing room before the clock strikes midnight.

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