The losses of Theo Epstein and Terry Francona last season are both going to be hard to quantify for Red Sox fans in the short term.
We don't know if Ben Cherington's offseason decisions would have been that much different than Theo's, and in spite of their vastly different managerial styles, it's going to be hard to say that the record Bobby Valentine finishes with in 2012 will be either better or worse than what a Francona-led Red Sox team would have produced.
There will be one loss that will be easy to quantify. That's the loss of Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon, last seen walking off the mound in Baltimore on Sept. 28 after blowing a crucial save that led to the end of Boston's season, is now a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.
He departed via free agency, one of the first big-name free agents to sign in the offseason. Papelbon had good reason to sign so quickly. Philadelphia offered him a record contract for a closer: a four-year, $50 million deal that no team was prepared to match, certainly not the Red Sox.
Red Sox fans are as passionate and loyal a fanbase as any in the nation. The fans have a history of not always embracing departed players, though. Sometimes, such as in the case of Johnny Damon, it's understandable. Roger Clemens was also a player who departed in manner in which fan animosity could be expected.
Papelbon is a bit different, though. He is, without question, the greatest closer in Red Sox history. He's also the second-best closer in baseball over the past six years, ranking behind only Mariano Rivera, who is unquestionably the greatest closer of all-time.
Great closers are a product of being granted lots of save opportunities. Of course, with all those opportunities comes a greater chance of blown opportunities. Over the course of his Red Sox career, Papelbon has had some memorably bad blown saves. That's not unique to Papelbon, though; it's a shared by all of the great closers.
The closer position is fairly new by baseball standards. The "save" statistic was not established until 1969, and the closer position in its current incarnation was first used with regularity by Tony LaRussa in the late 1980's, when he had Dennis Eckersley save games for the Oakland A's.
Eckersley was another one of the all-time great closers. He even won an American League Cy Young in 1992. Eckersley, like both Papelbon and Rivera, had a few memorable blown saves.
In 1988, Eckersley blew a save in Game 1 of the World Series when he allowed Kirk Gibson to hit a dramatic game-winning pinch hit home run.
In 2001, Mariano Rivera famously blew a chance to save Game 7 of the World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Yankees lost on a walk-off single. Then, in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, Rivera failed to convert a save against the Red Sox, who would go on to win the game in extra innings. The Red Sox famously moved on to win the series.
Yes, Papelbon did blow some big games in his time as Red Sox closer, but he also saved a ton as well. In his six-year run as Boston's closer, he saved more than 30 games in every season. He was at his most dominant in the 2007 postseason, when the Red Sox won the World Series. He had an earned run average of 0.00 and registered four saves.
His career earned run average is 2.33. Papelbon was the anchor of several very good Red Sox teams, and that's going to be difficult to replace.
It's not that Andrew Bailey or Mark Melancon, or Bobby Jenks or even Daniel Bard, can't get the job of closing out the ninth inning done in Boston. It's just that it's unlikely they're going to be as good at as Papelbon was.
No, the Red Sox should not have spent $50 million dollars, nor should they have handed Papelbon a four-year commitment. That doesn't mean he won't be missed. Part of the reason that Papelbon's blown saves stand out in your mind is because they didn't happen all that often.
So while all Red Sox fans will root for whoever assumes the role as closer on the 2012 Red Sox ( it seem likely to be Andrew Bailey), it's worth noting that the greatest closer in Red Sox history was Jonathan Papelbon. Best of luck to him in Philadelphia, unless of course, the Red Sox face off against the Phillies in the World Series.
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