Last year, Papelbon was not the dominant pitcher he has been in previous years, but was still a top closer.
Since Papelbon became a closer in 2006, he has posted ERAs of 0.92, 1.85, 2.34 and 1.85. Last year, his ERA ballooned to 3.90.
As the season progressed and Sox relief wunderkind Daniel Bard came into his own, dominating AL hitters, some fans began to call for Bard to replace Papelbon as closer.
Bard is not Papelbon, nor is he an elite closer. He has the potential to one day be great, but he is an unproven commodity on a team of proven players.
How many times does a dominant relief pitcher transition to the closer's role and all of a sudden lose his dominance?
Think about Boston's failed closer-by-committee experiment in the early 2000s: Mike Timlin and Alan Embree were both phenomenal in middle relief, but at that point in their careers, they were blowing far too many saves to reliably close.
The Red Sox are a team built to win this year (and their relative youth should continue the tradition of winning this year for years to come).
To rely on Bard would be a gamble and this is a team that doesn't need to gamble.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona has showed loyalty to "his guys" in the past. Think about the David Ortiz slumps to begin the last couple of seasons. It takes a lot for Francona to give up on someone.
Papelbon has not yet neared the level of inconsistency warranted for Francona to consider a change.
Despite Papelbon's struggles last year, he still had 37 saves. And this season, he starts spring training with extra rest.
Papelbon is a pitcher who has worked hard in every postseason for the last few years. Generally, he comes to spring training with one month less to recuperate than other pitchers.
Boston's failure to make the postseason last year gave Papelbon an extra month of rest, and he said he has noticed a difference in how his body responded.
Papelbon is also in a contract year. He doesn't seem to be the type of guy who needs motivation beyond simple competition, but it never hurts to have dollar signs in the back of players' heads.
While the Red Sox will not trade Papelbon this season, regardless of whether he has a career revival or not, they will almost definitely not re-sign him during the offseason.
Papelbon will demand top-player money and the Red Sox already have a payroll near the top of the league. Depending on whether Bard proves himself a worthy heir this season, they will likely give him the opportunity to close next year.
But Papelbon will be the Red Sox closer this season.
And if the Sox make the playoffs, Papelbon will be the guy on the mound when the season ends, for better or worse.