Yes, Jonathan Papelbon is still the closer of the Boston Red Sox.
While some might think that the addition of Bobby Jenks and the ever-present Daniel Bard are reasons enough to deal the struggling star, I'm not so sure. If I had to put money on it, I'd say Papelbon ends the 2011 season as a member of the Sox.
The fact of the matter is that 2010, easily Papelbon's worst season, isn't that far off from the career averages of Mr. Jenks himself. For instance, batters hit just .232 off Papelbon last season, while they have hit at a .239 mark against Jenks for his entire career.
Essentially, Pap at his worst is about on par with what Jenks might give you. Pap at his best is possibly the best closer in baseball.
Additionally, even if Papelbon is "bad" in the sense that he doesn't give us the same performance that he did in the earlier portion of his career, he's still better than the majority of the relievers in baseball. Red Sox fans have been so spoiled by watching the likes of Pap and Rivera on a consistent basis that they wouldn't know poor relief pitching if it beaned them in the face.
Trust me. If you really want to know what it's like to go through a season without any late inning help, ask any Arizona Diamondbacks fan.
And the most important thing that seems to be going overlooked throughout this whole discussion, is how bad a season Papelbon actually had. Sure, he set career lows in a number of different categories, but was it as bad as the numbers seem?
22 of Paps 29 earned runs came in just seven of his 65 appearances. This includes back-to-back blown saves in Colarado. Inter-league play is the bane of many players not comfortable with unfamiliar ballparks. It's also worth mentioning that this was the same series in which Dustin Pedroia broke his foot and Victor Martinez broke his hand, so I'm thinking that team morale couldn't have been high at this point.
When Pap was bad, he was really bad, but for the most part Pap was a dominant closer in 2010.
What Papelbon needs to do to succeed in 2011: Despite his "poor season" in 2010, Pap actually did some good things. Most notably, he regained the splitter which had been so devastating earlier in his career yet had all but left him in 2009.
However, Papelbon's fastball was all over the place. It wasn't uncommon to see him miss targets by a few inches or greater on more than one fastball during his appearances.
He also could be the beneficiary of an additional/improved breaking pitch (as his slider is rare, and does little more than hover low in the zone), or experimentation with additional fastball grips.
His 4-seam fastball is interminably straight, and doesn't move much or at all. So when he's missing with it, it's very, very hittable.
His splitter isn't designed to be thrown for strikes, so when a batter gets ahead in the count, he knows what's coming: a straight 4-seam fastball. When a batter knows what's coming and a pitcher is having accuracy problems with it, the result is a drastic rise in ERA...which is what we saw in 2010.
An additional off-speed pitch or a fastball with some movement, like a 2-seam or cutter, would help keep batters off balance. No longer would they be allowed to sit dead-red when they're ahead in the count.
Last year Papelbon's spring training project was rediscovering his splitter, which he accomplished. It'll be interesting to see if he adds anything to the repertoire in 2011.
It's also worth noting that Papelbon becomes a free agent for the first time after the 2011 season. If he ever wants to get a multi-year, expensive contract, a drastic improvement this year is the only way that will ever happen.