Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon arrived at the team's spring training facility in Fort Myers, Fl. today in his final year of arbitration eligibility with the club. He posted his worst season to-date in 2010 and questions about his future swirled around Red Sox Nation when the team reportedly made a multi-year offer to Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and signed former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks.
Papelbon addressed that uncertainty today by telling ESPN Boston's Gordon Edes, "They don’t pay me to think. If I’m a thinker, then I’m not a closer."
Maybe if he did more thinking, Papelbon wouldn't have seen his ERA balloon from 1.85 in 2009 to 3.90 last year. His homeruns/ fly ball percentage rose from 5.3 to 9.1 and his BB/9 jumped to 3.76 from 3.18. Simply put, his control is declining and he's getting hit harder than ever in his career.
Bill James predicts on FanGraphs that Papelbon will have a bounce back year of sorts: 2.61 ERA, 2.61 BB/9 and 41 saves. He did show stretches of dominance last year, such as an 11.2 innings scoreless streak that lasted through the entire month of July.
However, I believe Papelbon will take yet another step backwards and may even lose his job to Jenks or closer-in-waiting Daniel Bard. Papelbon threw his fastball 69 percent of the time last year, when he threw it more than 80 percent of the time the previous two seasons. His stuff is declining and he's lost his confidence in the pitch that got him to the Big Leagues.
Manager Terry Francona has demonstrated undying loyalty to his veteran players in the past (see Ortiz, David) and even to a rookie (Pedroia, Dustin) when they went through early-season struggles. So, don't expect Papelbon to lose his job by May.