Solving the Red Sox Closer problem

Duane Burleson

The Red Sox went into the season with two closers. As today dawns they have none. What is the solution?

Thursday night was terrible. This time manager John Farrell even had a replacement up in the pen in case Andrew Bailey struggled, but it didn't matter because Bailey was too quick for him. Walk, homer, done. At least he was efficient.

Andrew Bailey's ninth inning struggles are high-profile, but they are hardly the only stretch where a Red Sox closer has struggled in recent memory. Bailey himself is no stranger to struggles when closing games for Boston. He couldn't do the job last year, primarily because he was hurt (hard to close games when you can't pitch in them), but then when he returned to health (or at least action) he was still awful (7.04 ERA). His replacement, Alfredo Aceves, had his moments, but he's still Alfredo Aceves so he struggled in the role too (5.36 ERA). Overall in save situations last season, Red Sox pitchers posted a 4.86 ERA. That's pretty bad and goes a long way towards explaining the front offices decision to acquire Joel Hanrahan.

Ah. Hanrahan. He was this season's Bailey, pitching badly, then disappearing due to injury. Because it was so wonderful the last season so let's do it again! Still, this season has been better on the save front. As I write this Baseball Reference has yet to update their numbers to include last night's debacle, but even so, Red Sox pitchers have a 3.74 ERA in save situations this season. That'll go up but it won't reach 4.86 (or maybe it will, it's late and I don't feel like doing the math).

In any case Hanrahan is gone, effectively if nothing else, and Bailey's three homers in four appearances means he's going to have to do some serious showering to clean the stink off and make himself presentable for late-game duty again. A solid bullpen is still there but the dominant lights-out-in-the-eighth-and-ninth combo that had been envisioned during the last off-season is toast. The Red Sox could do some mixing and matching, pulling guys up from Triple-A because unlike last season they have some depth to work with. That's one option, and it could be successful, or at least an upgrade though considering recent events that's a low bar to jump over.

But there is another option available: the trade market. Consider this. Since 2010, to pick a recent season more or less at random, the best relievers in baseball have been, according to Fan Graphs WAR, as follows:

1. Craig Kimbrel (7.7)
2. Sean Marshall (6.4)
3. Jonathan Papelbon (6.2)

If you change the filter to include 2009, Papelbon jumps to the top. If you add 2008, Papelbon is still number one, ahead of Mariano Rivera and Matt Thornton of the White Sox. You can probably see where this is going.

So yes, Papelbon is a closer, he's had lots of success over the years, and now he may be available. Still, the Red Sox haven't exactly had a lot of success trading for closers. Part of the reason for that is that reliever performance, by definition, is very difficult to predict. There are a few guys who over any particular period are going to dominate, but the longer you stretch that time period, the more even the results become. If you stretch it out long enough you get Mariano Rivera, a long stretch of nothingness, and then a whole bunch of guys, many who aren't in the league or who haven't dominated in years.

Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports

Except for Papelbon. Papelbon may just be that rare Mariano-type reliever, at least in terms of longevity if not exactly performance. My purpose here isn't to compare Papelbon's performance to Rivera's though, but to point out that strangely, since Papelbon started relieving in 2006, he's seventh in games, fourth in innings pitched, and, for whatever it's worth, first in saves. And yet despite that, he's still a very good reliever. There may be some guys who are better than Papelbon this season but if you had to pick a guy to pay big money to and to keep on your roster for the next four seasons, you'd want the guy who is reliably good and never injured. In other words you'd want Papelbon.

The Red Sox let Papelbon leave for Philadelphia for what I considered to be very good reasons. Relievers are replaceable, building a team on a reasonable payroll when you're paying a reliever $13 million a season is tough (as the Phillies are now demonstrating), and signing relievers to long term contracts is often not a bright idea. In fact, the history of long term deals for relievers reads like a who's-who of awful contracts.

So the Red Sox let him go to Philadelphia and, because the Phillies were such eager beavers about it, they handed their first round pick over to the Red Sox as well. Oddly, it seems both teams may be regretting the way things turned out. The Red Sox because they can't seen to find anyone to pitch semi-decently when the game is on the line, and the Phillies because spending $13 million on a closer is a bit silly when your starting third baseman is Michael Young and your starting right fielder is Delmon Young.

That plus the fact that the Phillies are 35-38 and already 7.5 games behind first place Atlanta has led to rumors that they may make Papelbon available. Let me put it to you this way: if the Phillies aren't going to win this season, it would be borderline negligent for them not to make Papelbon available. So it all seems to line up well. The Red Sox would get their closer, someone they know and trust and someone who is familiar with pitching in Boston and has thrived there in the past. The Philles would get rid of salary and start to stock up their meager minor league system.

While the Red Sox would again be trading for a closer, and would be adding some serious money to their payroll, they could justify it. Boston is paying Bailey $4.1 million this season and Hanrahan $7.4 million. Both players figure to be elsewhere next season (though one or both remaining is certainly possible). Papelbon $13 million annual salary is just $1.5 million less than Bailey and Hanrahan make combined.

Then there's the commitment. Papelbon's contract runs through 2015, or two and a half more seasons (assuming he's dealt at the trade deadline). But there's also a relatively easily achievable 2016 option (55 games finished in 2015 or 100 games finished in 2014-15) that would bring the total value to about $45 over three and a half seasons. Then there's the problem of trading prospects for that contract. The Red Sox will have to add a bunch of guys to the 40 man roster this coming off-season so they're going to have to trade some of them or they'll lose them for nothing in the Rule 5 draft.

It's not hard to look at the Red Sox position, a competitive team in good position for the playoffs but in need of some bullpen help, and think that maybe there is a fit. The former closer now on the trade market, his contract and cost in prospects maybe scaring off potential suitors. The Red Sox are in position where they can afford to pay the contract and lose the minor league talent necessary to (re-)acquire Papelbon.

Doing so won't destroy Boston's payroll in future seasons, but it will certainly have an effect as Papelbon's contract would be tied with David Ortiz for the second highest average annual value on the team. Yet from where I sit tonight, after another ninth inning meltdown, with another hole blown in a previously mighty pen, with another loss that should've been in the win column, there is undeniably a fit. Whether the Red Sox front office perceives it the same way is anyone's guess, but the longer this season continues, the more it starts to look like an opportunity. It would be a shame to blow that opportunity in the ninth inning.

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