Against all odds, the Red Sox find themselves back in position to contend for a playoff spot. They enter the weekend 5.5 games back from the first-place Yankees, with three home games coming up against their rivals. Now, there is still a long way to go, and asking for a sweep in this series is a lot. They certainly aren’t all the way back in the race just yet.But with that being said, they have made this much more interesting than I ever could have anticipated, and they’ve done so much more quickly than I thought possible.
The most immediate upshot of all this (aside from making the games that much more fun to watch) is that the Red Sox are no longer definite sellers at the trade deadline. If/When they do decide to become buyers, there are a few different areas in which they can improve. Although their rotation has still improved, they would certainly benefit by adding another starting pitcher over the next few weeks. The other obvious place to look for help, though, is in their bullpen. It’s an area where they need as much help as they can get, and it’s getting more and more obvious the closer they get to contention.
Lucky for the Red Sox, there are always a lot of relievers available at the deadline, and this year is no different. Now, the price of acquiring bullpen arms is usually a bit more than one would like to pay (see: Rodriguez, Eduardo), but beggars can’t be choosers, and there’s no shortage of impact arms that should be available. This all plays in Boston’s favor. Guys like Jason Grilli, Tyler Clippard, Francisco Rodriguez and possibly Aroldis Chapman headline the class. Some of those names are more likely than others for the Red Sox, but they could all realistically be available.
The name that I’m most intrigued by, however, is old friend Jonathan Papelbon. The veteran is something of a controversial figure, but he would be a terrific acquisition for this front office. For all of the talk of his impending decline, it’s never really happened. During his four-year tenure with the Phillies, he’s remained a well-above average pitcher. He never pitched to an ERA above 2.92, a FIP higher than 3.05, or an ERA+ lower than 129. All told, he has a 2.33 ERA, 165 ERA+, and a 2.81 FIP since leaving the Red Sox after the 2011 season. He’s actually having one of the best years of his career this season, pitching to a 1.60 ERA, 238 ERA+ and a 2.75 FIP. He’s back to striking out a batter an inning while walking fewer than two batters per nine innings. Is he the same pitcher he was when he was with the Red Sox? No, but that’s an unfair comparison. During that stretch he was arguably the best reliever in the game not named Mariano Rivera. While he’s no longer that kind of elite player, he’s still a top-tier reliever, and it’s something the Red Sox desperately need.
Despite the narrative around Philadelphia’s GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. and his tendency to ask for huge trade packages, teams shouldn’t have to give up much in terms of prospects to acquire Papelbon. Amaro can try as hard as he wants, but at the end of the day it is obvious to everyone that they will trade their closer, and the Phillies just don’t have that much leverage. Now, he won’t be available for cash considerations for a player to be named later, but he won’t take a top prospect either. This becomes especially true if/when a team takes on his whole contract, a thing the Red Sox can afford to do.
Paplebon has a $13 million vesting option for 2016 that kicks in if he finishes 19 more games this season. Spending that much money on a 35 year old reliever isn’t the most efficient way to spend money, of course, but it’d be a worthy overpay for the Red Sox. It’s just one year of that kind of spending, and it’s hard to be confident their bullpen will be fixed by next season. His presence at the back of the pen, should still pay big dividends both this year and next. And as ever, the goal is to field the best team, not the most efficient one.
If they do make this move, I will certainly acknowledge that the vesting option puts them in a tough position. Papelbon will not be happy if he’s not finishing games, because he can do it for most teams and he doesn’t want to lose money. While it’s his right, the Red Sox don’t want to risk an unhappy Papelbon in their clubhouse. That leaves them with two options, both of which seems feasible to me.
The first option is to just guarantee his option right now. It’s unclear how he would react to that, of course, but there’s a chance they could work it in their favor. They could just tell him that they’d feel more comfortable splitting the role between him and Koji Uehara, two aging players. Papelbon won’t have to worry about next season anymore, and he can still play an important role on nights he pitches in the seventh and eighth innings.
The other option is to move Uehara back on the depth chart. Luckily for the Red Sox, he doesn’t seem like the type of player who would cause a stir over this move. At 40 years old and another year on his deal after 2015, he’s likely signed his last contract, meaning the additional saves won’t mean as much to him as it would a younger pitcher. Meanwhile, Papelbon will have his chance to kick in his vesting option in the only role he’s ever known. Uehara excelled as a setup man for most of his career, and could do so again. This arrangement would give Boston a dominant back-end of the bullpen with Junichi Tazawa and Uehara setting up Papelbon.
The Red Sox will have plenty of options in terms of relief arms leading up to the trade deadline, but Papelbon is the best choice available. Beyond the fact that he’s already excelled as a closer in Boston, he’s also still really talented and is on a deal the Red Sox can afford. The money works in their favor as it should lessen the asking price in prospects. It would lead to an uncomfortable decision to make in terms of new roles, but that’s not enough of a deterrent. If Ben Cherington wants to make a splash at this deadline, Papelbon is the way to go.