The story goes that for 2011 the Red Sox would swallow hard, tender Jonathan Papelbon one last contract, and with unrestricted free agency looming, hope a supremely motivated Papelbon performed for one more season. Then he could go get filthy rich elsewhere. Papelbon was coming off two consecutive seasons where his performance was not what it had been to start his career, and it seemed fans, media and front office personnel alike had soured on the idea of Papelbon as a long term solution in Boston. He would almost assuredly be a bad overpay for some team (Hi, Ed Wade!) since he comes with the Proven Closer™ moniker, and he hasn't exactly been shy about his desire to make a ton of money.
But something funny happened, and Brian MacPherson picked up on this yesterday on his Providence Journal blog. Papelbon regained his old form, and taking into account all of the dynamics at play, it's conceivable now that Papelbon will be back with the Red Sox. Just as he was from 2006 to 2008, Papelbon is once again among the very best relief pitchers in baseball. MacPherson makes the following points (paraphrasing):
1) The free agent Closer market figures to be saturated with the likes of Heath Bell, Francisco Rodriguez, Matt Capps and Jonathan Broxton also unrestricted.
2) With Mariano Rivera in the fold and having already learned a hard lesson overpaying for Rafael Soriano this past offseason, it's hard to see the Yankees in the mix for Papelbon's services.
3) Therefore, Papelbon may need the Red Sox to be bidding for his services in order to get the kind of money he would want.
4) The Red Sox are the type of team that can a) afford an overpay and b) are expected to win every year.
The only additional item I would add to this is that Papelbon, for all his idiocy and Nuke Lalooshness, has endeared himself to Boston fans. He's been the Closer on a World Series team and a mainstay during one of the most successful runs in franchise history. He's motivated to remain in Boston for both his personal legacy and life after baseball, even if he has to take a little haircut financially in order to do so. Pure speculation, but my guess is that these things are important to him. Heck he plays against career Yankee Mariano Rivera 19 times a year. How could they not be?
But should Boston overpay? It's an interesting question. When you consider a team like the Tampa Bay Rays, who have received outstanding output from Kyle Farnsworth as their Closer this year, it's hard to argue they should. Heck last night it was Joel Peralta that closed out the Yankees in the 9th inning with a one run lead. The truth is that many relief pitchers are capable of handing the "Closer" role as it's been carved out in modern baseball.
On the other hand, Theo Epstein, in an excerpt from MacPherson's post, makes a relevant point. When your goal every year is to win your final game in October, you want to know who it is that's going to be able to handle that kind of pressure. It's not that you know others can't do it, it's just that you know Papelbon can. He's done it before, having been on the mound at the end of the 2007 World Series, and having stood tall time and again in a number of other pressure-packed situations. What's that worth?
For the Red Sox, it might be a lot. In 2011 the Red Sox will pay J.D. Drew, Carl Crawford, Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey a combined $62 million, a larger figure than nine teams' entire payrolls. To date, they have received 0.8 fWAR out of the trio, or about the same output Jason Varitek has provided. The Red Sox also are tied for the best run differential in baseball and have the best record in the American League. They've done such a good job drafting and developing talent and locking it up at below-market rates that Boston can afford these types of mistakes. They're expressly built into the team's plan.
This sort of thinking can lead to an overly cavalier approach. It would be unfortunate if funds earmarked for Papelbon as he struggled along in 2013 and 2014 precluded the Red Sox from re-signing Jacoby Ellsbury. The budget is not infinite. But Boston will have close to $40 million come off their books next year and with Josh Reddick, and perhaps Ryan Kalish, looking like suitable Drew replacements and much of the rotation in place, they don't figure to be overly active on the free agent market. They have David Ortiz and Papelbon to think about and that's about it. At this point, barring significant performance drop-offs down the stretch, I think they both may be worth ponying up for.