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Papelbon Still Best Option for Boston

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Hey, folks.

Long time reader, first time writer. I was very excited when Marc Normandin asked me if I'd like to start contributing to Over the Monster. I've been toiling in freelance work for other sites and other teams for the past few seasons, and I'm glad to have a new home here with all of you. 

We'll keep the introductions short, but we'll hit on a few key points: I hate the six-man rotation and bunting. I like two-seam fastballs, and stealing home plate. I'm aspiring sabermetrician, and I'm an avid bourbon drinker. You can find me on the Twitters here.

Free agency comes soon for Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon—and there are a lot of question marks about what the future holds for the closer and the Red Sox bullpen.

With free agency beginning just five days after the World Series ends, Papelbon, who has spent his entire major league career in a Red Sox uniform told WEEI.com that

he is ‘very excited’ about his free agency eligibility.

"Yeah, I'm very excited," Papelbon said when asked about being a free agent. "But I don't think it's all about getting to this point. I really don't. I don't think it's about, I said no to this deal and that deal, or I didn't get any deals that I like so screw these guys, and I'm trying to get to free agency as fast as I can to get out of here. Because that's totally not the way it was. It just really wasn't."

 

While Papelbon is enthusiastic about being on the market for the first time in his career, the big questions become should the Red Sox re-sign Jonathan Papelbon and how does the rumored departure of Theo Epstein change the face of free agent negotiations?

Papelbon has established himself as one of the premiere closers in the game, with 219 saves and a 2.33 career ERA, in 7 seasons with the Red Sox. He set a record for not allowing a run in his first 25 postseason innings.

2010 was a rocky season for Papelbon, but he returned to form in 2011, with a 2.94 ERA and 31 saves—becoming the first pitcher ever to record 30+ saves in his first six seasons.

General manager Theo Epstein said during a recent news conference that he would like to see both Papelbon and Ortiz return in 2012, but with the regime change of manager and general manager that could be happening in the organization, it is unclear where the focus on retaining Ortiz and Papelbon will be. 

The Red Sox have turned Papelbon into a franchise closer, with the longest stint in the closer role in Red Sox history. From the spectacle surrounding his entrance music, to his antics of stern looks and fist pumps, since 2005 the ninth inning has belonged to Papelbon.

It would seem that the organization understands the value that Papelbon brings, and they have proven their commitment to Papelbon as the closer—but it comes with a big price tag.

In his three arbitration eligible seasons, the Red Sox gave Papelbon one-year contracts with big paydays—$6.25 in 2009, $9.35 in 2010, and $12 in 2011.  If the Red Sox were to consider keeping Papelbon, it would likely take somewhere in the 5yr/$15M range. But given the state of the bullpen surrounding Papelbon and those available in his free agent class, is Papelbon worth the expense?

When the 2011 season began, the Red Sox were preparing the bullpen for life without Papelbon in mind. Daniel BardBobby Jenks, and Dan Wheeler were slated to pitch relief in the late innings going forward, however the reality of the rotation shaped up differently.

Jenks’ injuries, Wheeler’s inconsistency, and Bard’s difficulty in April and September raise a lot of red flags about the preparedness of the bullpen in Papelbon’s absence.

Bard’s September performance was disappointing, giving up 13 runs in just 11 innings. His 10.64 ERA (1.818 WHIP, 9.0 SO/9, 7.36 BB/9) for September was in stark contrast to his 0.00 ERA of June and July, but with apparent mechanical issues, it is not likely the Red Sox could rely on Bard to become the new closer.

As for free agents, the best options for the Red Sox to consider would be Heath BellFrancisco Rodriguez, and possibly Ryan Madson. But these marquee free agents create a similar problem for the Red Sox—big money and long contracts.  

Perhaps the Red Sox would be willing to try a free agent reliever of a lesser pedigree in the closer role, but with this available pool of free agents of aging relievers, the Red Sox would have to get creative.

Papelbon has been successful with the organization, and Epstein said recently that Papelbon has become a leader and a respected member of the bullpen in his tenure. Will a respected closer of his pedigree remain a high priority for new management? That's a question without an answer right now, but given Papelbon's history a new contract is definitely worth considering, even with the high price tag.