The trade deadline has come and gone, but that doesn’t mean the time for player acquisition has left as well. The Red Sox find themselves right in the middle of the rumor mill once again, this time involving old friend Jonathan Papelbon. The former Boston closer was straight-up released by the Nationals last week, and it seems the Sox may be one of the teams willing to give him a chance. Or, as Dave Dombrowski put it, they’re at least willing to look into it. Given the history between the two sides, don’t expect this rumor to go away until he officially signs with someone. So, because we’re going to be hearing about this for a while, let’s look at some pros and cons of signing him.
Con: The Numbers Aren’t Great
Unfortunately, the 2016 Jonathan Papelbon isn’t the same Jonathan Papelbon that Red Sox fans may remember. To be fair, he’s been able to avoid this kind of decline longer than most anyone could have expected but Father Time comes for us all. Now in his age-35 season, the big righty has a career-worst 4.37 ERA to go with a near-worst 3.73 FIP, a career-worst 113 cFIP and a career-worst 4.72 DRA. Now, I’m no pitching coach, but it is my professional opinion that having so many career worsts is a bad thing. There’s always hope with relievers that the numbers are the result of small samples, but there’s not much hope in this case.
Con: The Stuff Has Declined... A Lot
Not only do the numbers look bad, but just watching Papelbon is a different experience than it was just a few years ago. To be honest, this decline sort of started a few years ago when he was still in Philadelphia. In 2013, he struck out fewer than a batter per inning for the first time in his career, and continued to do so from there on out. However, he was able to make up for it by inducing weak contact and ground balls. That hasn’t been the case this year. For one thing, his fastball velocity has continued a steady decline, averaging just 91 mph this season. He’s also inducing grounders on just 36 percent of the batted balls he allows, his lowest rate since 2009 when he was still a dominant strikeout arm. It’s hard to succeed when you’re allowing such a low ground ball rate and also inducing swings and misses are one of the lowest rates of your career.
Con: He’s Not Exactly a Positive Clubhouse Presence
This one is a little hard to judge from the outside, and it’s something that I usually try to stay out of. I’m not in the clubhouse and I never have been, so who the hell am I to judge how a player will fit into the culture of the team? Then, there are players like Papelbon, who kind of defy that line of thinking. Now, the Red Sox have obviously won a championship with him on the roster, so it’s possible, but his antics are easier to put up with when he’s one of the two or three best relievers in the league. The most obvious example of his poor clubhouse presence actually came in the dugout, when he infamously choked Bryce Harper. Could you imagine him doing that to Mookie Betts? Or Xander Bogaerts? Or Andrew Benintendi? Or, God forbid, Sandy Leon? No, I don’t want to imagine that.
Con: He’d Keep Higher Upside In The Minors
This is probably the smallest deal of all the cons relating to signing Papelbon, but it still matters. Let’s assume the Red Sox do sign Papelbon. Obviously, that means he’s got a spot on the major-league roster, meaning someone else has to go. Is it going to be Heath Hembree, who lost his spot but is (likely) coming back up on Monday and has shown flashes of greatness for much of the year? Is it Matt Barnes, who seemingly alternates between shakiness and dominance, but has also earned John Farrell’s trust? Is it Junichi Tazawa, who has certainly struggled of late but no moreso than Papelbon? Is it Fernando Abad, who has disappointed since coming to Boston but is still their best option against left-handed hitters? There’s no player in this bullpen I’d be willing to either demote or release for Papelbon, even with the acknowledgement that they could be right back in September. Every game is too important right now.
Nostalgia is a powerful a weapon. It’s easy to put aside all of the negatives about Papelbon when he allows you to think back to 2007 and his dancing on the field after the victory. That was such a fun, stress-free season, and it was Papelbon at his peak. He wasn’t the MVP of the team, but at that moment in time there was an argument for him being the best reliever in baseball. When the Red Sox had a lead in the ninth, the game was legitimately over in the way we thought it would be with Craig Kimbrel. Making a move for nostalgia doesn’t make a ton of sense from a baseball perspective, but hey, I’m not in the front office.
So, there are so, so, so many reasons for the Red Sox to move on from Paplebon. If they really want another reliever, there are ways to get them in August. The former Red Sox champion is a shell of his former self, with his numbers on a steep decline along with his stuff. His clubhouse presence has only gotten worse as he’s gotten older, and he’d be replacing a (probably) better arm in the bullpen. And you know what? I don’t care. Sign Papelbon. Let me relish in that sweet, sweet 2007 nostalgia for a minute.