Thursday marks another day of decisions for the Red Sox, who must tender contracts to unsigned arbitration-eligible players by midnight. The list includes Jonathan Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury, Hideki Okajima, Taylor Buchholz and Andrew Miller.
The first of that grouping presents perhaps the biggest quandary. While firmly established as the best closer in franchise history, Papelbon carries with him several positives, some negatives and a handful of ways in which he could be handled.
Here is a look at the pros and cons to each move the Red Sox could make with Papelbon:
1. Tender him a contract
Pro: When your bullpen was as bad as it was for Boston in 2010, it would be an incredible risk to allow your closer to walk away in the midst of rebuilding the unit, even if he is coming off a down year. Keeping Papelbon for one more year provides some stability at the back end of the bullpen, gives Daniel Bard another season to ply his trade and potentially advance into the closer’s role in 2012 and allows general manager Theo Epstein to focus his fixes on less-important and potentially easier holes to fill in the bullpen. In addition, Papelbon in a contract year might be more motivated than ever. Perhaps the club gets one more great year from him and lets him walk at the age of 31, when Bard is more than ready.
Con: After making $9.35 million in 2010, Papelbon would stand to make upwards of $11 or $12 million in arbitration. Epstein never allows negotiations to get that far, but he would have to pay a similar price to avoid the court proceedings. That is a lot of money for a 30-year-old closer coming off his worst season, and it becomes an even bigger figure if Sox brass truly believes that Papelbon is in decline.
2. Let Papelbon become a free agent
Pro: It looks as if Carl Crawford wants eight years, and in the current players’ market he will be able to demand, and receive, a ton of cash. The same goes for Adrian Beltre, Jayson Werth or any of the other free agents the Red Sox are interested in signing. Freeing up Papelbon’s money would give the front office a bit more flexibility when making their pitch to such players.
Con: Suddenly, you are without a closer. Sure, Bard may be able to slide right into the role, but that’s not a guaranteed fix. He is still young and showed some hiccups himself when filling in for Papelbon last year. Plus, even if it works, you now have a gaping hole where Bard once stood. There are closers on the market (Rafael Soriano, Kerry Wood, Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch, Kevin Gregg and, of course, Mariano Rivera) but there is also a league-wide need for these players and the Sox would then have to get into the mix with several other teams vying for their services. Simply letting Papelbon go creates plenty of uncertainty and instability. Also, by waiting one more year before allowing Papelbon to sign elsewhere, the Sox would gain a draft pick. In this scenario, they get nothing but some savings for the holidays.
3. Trade Papelbon
Pro: If you are willing to move on from Papelbon, it simply makes sense to try to get something for him, right?
Con: That something would likely come in the form of bullpen help, wouldn’t it? Does it make sense to ship a quality closer for a middle reliever and a setup man? It might, depending on who those players are and whether or not you are confident in Bard or one of the available closers being able to step right in. However, while this could amount to a cost-saving scenario, it could also keep the question marks swirling over an already questionable bullpen. You want to fix the pen, but you don’t want to blow it up and start over.
Expect the Sox to simply sign Papelbon for one more year, hope for a rebound campaign and then turn their eyes to another closer for 2012 and beyond. With uncertainty at multiple positions right now, it would be prudent to keep in place some of the parts that work and utilize time, effort and available funds for a big splash elsewhere.