FORT MYERS, Fla. — Much of the offseason chatter surrounding the Red Sox has focused on the bullpen. On Sunday in Fort Myers, that remained the case, with the man who is still at the back end of the pen focused on a bounce-back season.
Jonathan Papelbon, who is coming off a year in which he blew a career-high eight saves, said he was unbothered by the offseason talk of his departure. In fact, he is welcoming in one of the new additions to the bullpen, Bobby Jenks, whose presence caused some to wonder if Papelbon?s days as the closer are numbered.
“I view it as a pretty strong acquisition,” Papelbon said of signing Jenks, the closer for several years with the White Sox. “I think he?s gonna have a huge role on the team this year, and he’s going to be a huge instrument for our success.”
Jenks is signed for two years. Papelbon is a free agent after the 2011 season. The current closer understands that such a scenario will have some people projecting Jenks as the future closer, but he’s not ready to make such an assumption himself. In fact, he wonders why there is a rush to look so far ahead when the current club has a chance to do something special.
Win a World Series now. Worry about everything else later on.
“Yeah there’s a possibility that I could stay, yeah there’s a possibility that I could leave,” Papelbon said. “At the same time I’m thinking about the possibility of winning a championship. I think that throws everything out the door and you just focus on that one thing.
“Why does everyone assume [I am gone after 2011]? For me, that’s an assumption, so I don’t think that every time I play that this is going to be my last time in a Red Sox uniform or this could be my last time with the Red Sox. I’m not going to think about that?I saw the acquisitions that [general manager Theo Epstein] made and I saw how Theo was able to fill the holes in our team that obviously we lacked last year by not making the playoffs. Personally, I think he did a helluva job and we’re in a position that it’s gonna be put up or shut up.”
The 30-year-old Papelbon had 37 saves last year, but did see his ERA shoot up to a career-high 3.90. He gave up career highs in homers (14) and doubles (seven). Some of the struggles he attributed to losing his delivery as the year went on and struggling to find the form that has made him a four-time All-Star.
After tucking himself away in Mississippi this offseason and making a few tiny adjustments to his regimen, he is in great shape and says that he is throwing better at this stage of the year than he normally is. To Papelbon, that’s a sure sign that he’ll get locked in early and maintain his health and durability throughout the 2011 season.
Another factor in that mission is the presence of Jenks, Daniel Bard, Dan Wheeler and all the members of a revamped Boston bullpen.
“I think when you look at the equation of our bullpen the biggest thing that I see is that everybody is going to be able to go out there and do their job. Nobody will have to pick up extra innings,” Papelbon added. “Nobody will have to feel like the load is too much on them. When you have that in place I think it makes everybody’s job easier.”
It could also have a very positive effect on Papelbon if and when he hits free agency with improved numbers. While the closer contends he will not be thinking much of his next contract, his manager is hopeful it will have a positive effect.
“I think it’ll motivate him,” manager Terry Francona said Sunday. “I don’t think he’s ever been real hesitant to say that. He aspires to be one of the high-bar [pitchers], or however you say it. That’s OK.”
Papelbon said it comes down to just doing his job and blocking out all that other stuff. If he is able to do so, and his mates in the bullpen do the same, the potential is there to form a pretty special unit, one Papelbon said can rival the 2007 version. The righty was the star of that bullpen, memorably recording a strikeout to end the World Series sweep of the Colorado Rockies.
“Obviously the best bullpen I’ve been on is ’07, because of the simple fact that we went out and got the job done,” he said. “I think if we can go out and do the same I think it will be the best bullpen [in baseball].”