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Shipping Out

It’s not entirely surprising that Jonathan Papelbon signed with the Philadelphia Phillies today. He had long said that he would sign with whatever team offered him the most money, and unlike many of the Red Sox farm system’s recent graduates he refused to sign away years of free agency for the comfort of guaranteed money. Papelbon took a risk, hoping that he would stay healthy and effective long enough to cash in when he hit free agency, and today that risk paid off.

From the Phillies’ perspective, Ruben Amaro all but shouted from the rooftops that he would be going after a free agent closer. After a reported four-year, $44-million deal with Ryan Madson fell through, the Phils set their sights on Papelbon, and today they got their man. If the rumored terms are true, the deal is for four years and guarantees somewhere around $50 million; it also includes a fifth-year vesting option that could push the total to $60 million.

You could make a case that Papelbon has been the best relief pitcher in baseball since the start of the 2006 season. In that time he leads all relievers in fWAR, and only Mariano Rivera is close. By many respects, 2011 was the best season of his career, as he posted career lows in FIP, xFIP, tERA and SIERA, along with the second-lowest K%, BB% and HR/9 of his career. It came at a convenient time for Papelbon; he had been less than stellar in the two years prior to 2011, but his excellent campaign earned him the big-money contract he was looking for.

On Twitter, I’d been advocating that the Red Sox look into re-signing Papelbon, if the price was right; of course, the terms I had been throwing around were somewhere in the neighborhood of three years and $36 million. At the price the Phillies paid for him, I’m not broken up to see him go. He was an excellent relief pitcher, and I believe he will continue to be one for the immediate future; however, even the very best relief pitchers only add so much value, and I think that four or five years and $50-60 million is too much money for anyone, even Papelbon or Rivera.

Looking ahead to 2012 for the Red Sox, the path forward for the bullpen seems clear: Use Daniel Bard as the closer, hope that Bobby Jenks can return to health, and patch together a competent pen filled with cheap kids and veterans cast off from other teams. Throw a whole bunch of minor league contracts at the wall, and see how many of them stick.

I’ll miss Jonathan Papelbon. He was a pain to watch at times, either because he was yelling at himself or grabbing his crotch or just dancing around like an idiot, but he was a damn good closer. Thanks for the ring and the memories, Pap.

  1. November 11, 2011 at 3:45 PM

    i am still surprised. esp after all the grief we got from our bullpen. we’re going to have to bring someone in… probably heath bell… and that someone isn’t going to be nearly as much fun to watch because what are the odds of hiring another jig dancer?

    • November 11, 2011 at 3:54 PM

      I don’t think the Red Sox will bring in a big name free agent to replace Papelbon. Only the truly elite relief pitchers (and I mean top top top-level guys, basically Mariano Rivera and nobody else) are worth the kind of money that closers command on the open market. Bell in particular would be a bad use of resources because he’s most likely already declining; his good career numbers have all come in spacious PetCo Park, and there’s no guarantee that he’d be able to repeat them in the tougher league and a much less pitcher-friendly ballpark.

      As I said in the post, the most logical thing for the Sox to do would be to make the Bard the closer (as has seemingly been the plan since he came up in 2009) and hope that the rest of the pen either bounces back from 2011 (Jenks) or repeats their performance. A lot of the failings of the bullpen, I think, can be traced back to the atrocious starting pitching. Fix that, and suddenly everything looks a little brighter.

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