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Papelbon celebrates the final out of the 2007 World Series
He's no Mariano Rivera. No one is, though, so perhaps that's not the best barometer to measure one's closer and their contributions and value to a franchise.
Heading into the 2011 season, Papelbon's departure seemed both inevitable and logical. He had endured back-to-back seasons of tangible statistical regression. 2009 wasn't a bad season by any standard, but 2010 was truly a mediocre season for a player once pegged as potentially a Hall of Fame-type closer.
2011 was different. Yes, Papelbon, like nearly every other player on the Red Sox, played a big role in the September implosion, but even with some real poor outings down the stretch, he finished the season with an earned run average of 2.94. He had 31 saves and struckout 87 batters in 64.1 innings. He also finished up with his lowest WHIP ratio since the 2007 season at 0.933. It was a very good season for Papelbon.
All of that may have been not that important for Red Sox management if young fireballer Daniel Bard had continued to improve and impress. Had that been the case, then Papelbon's season would have been likely to net him a big contract—but not in Boston.
That's not what happened, though. Yes, everyone had a bad September, but with the exception of Matt Albers, no bullpen pitcher was worse in September than Bard. And while Albers was never expected to be much better than average in the first place, Bard was and still is being groomed to become a dominant closer.
That point in his career may be a bit further down the road than most members of the Red Sox front office thought just a few months ago.
Bard's September earned run average was 10.64. He issued 24 walks for the entire season and nine of them came in September. In short, he was not just disappointing, he was terrible.
With Bard's ability to step into the closer role next season in doubt and Papelbon coming off an impressive season, there is now an actual need to re-sign him. It's one thing to let Papelbon go the free-agent route, but if all the Red Sox would do is go out into the market and spend similar money on a player such as Heath Bell, who has never pitched in the American League and pitches in the pitcher-friendly confines of San Diego's Petco Park, then would the savings be worth it?
In Papelbon they have a known commodity. They have a pitcher who they know can perform within the pressure cooker that is Red Sox Nation. Those aren't easy things to find. It will of course come down to money, but the days of mega-deals for closers seem to be waning a bit. If Papelbon is expecting K-Rod-type money (three years, $37 million), then he's not likely to receive that from the Red Sox. Who would pay him that type of money, though? Every single big-market team with the exception of the Cubs has a player occupying the closer position. If the Phillies were to let current closer Ryan Madson walk in free agency, then that would be a potential destination. Other than that, the real big-money destinations may not come calling.
Three years and $30 million would probably get the deal done. Can the two sides get there? It's possible. Papelbon's agent Sam Levinson has a history of steering his clients toward more stable careers. Levinson clients such as Mike Lowell remained in Boston, and Jorge Posada always found a way to stay in the Bronx. Papelbon may be coming out of the bullpen for a few more years in Boston.