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Baseball Notes

Papelbon is all business, and so are the Sox

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By Nick Cafardo
December 19, 2010

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The strange existence of Jonathan Papelbon.

Some have even suggested this could be Mike Lowell II, but there are many reasons it won’t be.

Certainly, the Red Sox have shopped and/or listened on Papelbon this winter, according to major league general managers, and even went so far as to offer Mariano Rivera a three-year deal for $51 million, with the idea that if they landed the 41-year-old, Papelbon would be gone. Papelbon is in his final year of arbitration, and there’s a chance his agents will ask for about $11.5 million. The Red Sox have never gone to arbitration with Theo Epstein as GM, therefore they’ll likely settle at around $11 million for a closer who blew eight saves last season.

Papelbon and the Sox have long had an understanding that he will test the free agent market when eligible, and the Sox would only sign him long term if they received a team-friendly deal, as they did with Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Jon Lester.

Despite all the reports, the Red Sox never thought they would actually land Rivera, because of his loyalty to the Yankees. But surely they bid high in an effort to get the Yankees to go to a second year at significant money ($30 million total). Of course, the Red Sox were prepared to take Rivera, but everyone knew he wanted to finish his career in New York.

Meanwhile, this is what Papelbon has been building for — his walk year. When he can prove to everyone that he’s the best, and should be paid accordingly. And it’s the Red Sox’ right to keep him or pursue the best deal for a player they probably won’t be able to sign on his terms.

The acquisition of free agent Bobby Jenks has given rise to speculation that Papelbon could be moved, with Daniel Bard ready to take over. Of course, that leaves you with Jenks as a setup man after three consecutive subpar seasons. Nothing says that Papelbon, or Jenks for that matter, won’t stop the downward spiral. Both will be 30 this season, and what we’ve learned from relievers, and closers specifically (not named Rivera), is that they tend to lead inconsistent careers. Yet, even after a poor season, Papelbon remains one of the better end-of-game performers, who has been through tough playoff games and helped the Red Sox win the World Series in 2007.

The likely scenario is that Jenks and Bard set up for Papelbon in 2011.

The Red Sox weren’t crazy to sign Jenks. But it’s a philosophy that former Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker believes in, that if you acquire someone who has accomplished something, there’s a good chance that player will rise to that level again.

If the trade talk and the wooing of Rivera was presented well to Papelbon, and the suspicion here is it was, there’s no reason why he can’t pitch at a high level for the Sox. One certainly never knows how Papelbon will take it. If he thinks that the Sox tried to deal him, and that they even insulted him by pursuing Rivera, then you could see a problem.

But at the end of the day, Papelbon will either be oblivious to it, or he’ll understand that the Sox are merely conducting business, as he’s conducting business by playing well going into free agency.

Is there a market for a closer who is coming off a down season, who will be paid a high salary for 2011, and who is scheduled to become a free agent? On a smaller-market team, you’d likely see the player traded, but the Red Sox can certainly afford to keep him, and then let him go as a free agent and take the draft-pick compensation. Or, if they’re out of the hunt at the trading deadline, which would really be a disaster, they could deal him then.

Who would want him?

The Angels used Fernando Rodney as their closer after dealing Brian Fuentes, but Rodney is not the guy Mike Scioscia wants in that role. The Angels signed Scott Downs, but he’s not a closer, either. They had previously been linked to free agent Rafael Soriano, but bowed out. So, why not Papelbon? One player who might interest Boston because of its need for a righthanded bat is catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli. The Sox could catch Napoli sometime, and DH him against lefthanded pitching. Interesting idea.

There’s been talk inside the Rangers organization about moving rookie of the year closer Neftali Feliz to the rotation. Papelbon makes sense because the Rangers can afford him after saving $130-$140 million by not signing Cliff Lee. The Red Sox could get prospects back.

Really, it could be any team that decides a closer who’s pitched in big games and is still relatively young could be important. But all indications are that the Sox won’t give Papelbon away. If they have a good deal for him, they’ll make it. If not, they’ll go into the season with two closers, and Bard, who is close to being one of the best in the game.

Papelbon’s situation looks a tad uncomfortable, but this is what he wanted.

HE’S FLOWN THE COOP

Coach left behind has good memories

The only major league pitching coach Bobby Jenks has ever known, the White Sox’ Don Cooper, who is one of the best in the business, was sad to see him go.

“He left me a text message, just saying how much he’ll miss me and how now I’ll be on the other side of the diamond and all that stuff. I really appreciated it,’’ said Cooper (above). “I have nothing but good memories of Bobby. He was a kid when he came up here. I know his kids and wife and family and I like to think the White Sox did a lot for him.

“He really pulled his life together and I like to think we were a part of that. He helped us win a World Series. I’ll never forget that.’’

Cooper said any decline with Jenks was health-related.

“He had a back and then he had a calf problem. He’s missed some time with those things, but I’m telling you, this guy is an exceptional relief pitcher,’’ said Cooper.

“He can pitch in any role. He can close, he has the pitches to be situational. He can throw a ground ball when he needs to, he can strike you out. He won’t have any problem adapting to any new role, as a setup guy or whatever. He throws a two-seamer, four-seamer, changeup, cutter, slider, breaking pitch. This guy could have been a hell of a starting pitcher, but he has a pin in his elbow. But he’s never had an arm problem.’’

Concerning Jenks’s weight issues over the years, Cooper said, “I think like everyone else, Bobby has to stay on top of it. He’s a big dude, a big man. When he’s going good, nobody’s mentioning his weight. When he’s healthy, he’s top-flight. This guy has an incredible résumé. The Red Sox really got one of the best.’’

On Jenks’s decline last season, Cooper said, “One or two bad outings can do a number on your bottom line. He needs a little tuneup on his slider every now and then, but Bobby is an asset. With [Jonathan] Papelbon and [Daniel] Bard and Bobby, I’ll take my chances. The Red Sox got a good man. This will work out great for them.’’

STAIRS IS IN HEAVEN

Journeyman eager to keep on swinging

When Matt Stairs signed a minor league deal with Washington last week, you had to smile. What a career. If he makes the Nationals, it will be his 13th team (OK, maybe it will be his 12th, if you consider his first was the Expos, who became the Nationals). The record-holder with 23 pinch-hit homers, will go to his 22d spring training.

“I’m truly blessed,’’ Stairs said. “I wanted to play another year because based on how I swung the bat in September, I felt I could play again. I can still hit. Now that I lost the weight [more than 30 pounds last season] I feel I can maneuver around the field a lot better, so I can play the outfield or first base. So, whatever I can do to help. I have to make the team out of spring training, but if I can show I can still swing the bat, there should be a role for me.’’

Stairs, who coaches hockey at Bangor High School, said he received a few offers from teams, and could have signed for more elsewhere if he had waited.

“The Nationals were the first team to approach me and they were genuinely interested, so I went with them,’’ Stairs said. “It was attractive to me that they were on the East Coast and easier, living in Maine, for my family. But they’ve been very active in signing people and making trades and they’re really trying to be a top organization.’’

Stairs reunites with former Phillies teammate Jayson Werth, who he says “is one of the few five-tool athletes out there. The last one I saw before Jayson was Larry Walker. Jayson can do just about everything on the baseball field. He’s a game-changer. Very committed to the game.’’

Stairs said of his former Padres teammate, Adrian Gonzalez, “I can see why the fans in San Diego are so upset. This is a great player, but I’ve never seen a player so perfectly suited for Fenway Park. Mo Vaughn was really good, but Adrian has natural power, a natural swing that way. He’ll pepper that wall out there unless teams start deciding they’re going to pound him inside. If they do that, he’s got plenty of power everywhere to hit home runs and drive in runs. If you’re a pitcher, you’re not going to be able to win that battle. He’ll hurt you somehow. Keeps to himself, but a strong leader.’’

ETC.
Apropos of nothing 1. Some team will hit the jackpot on a one-year deal for Manny Ramirez; 2. Two teams made out like bandits: The Dodgers stole Jon Garland for $5 million and the Cubs got a steal by paying Kerry Wood $1.5 million for a year; 3. Two good under-the-radar signings: Jeremy Accardo by the Orioles and Lyle Overbay by the Pirates; 4. Chili Davis was on Boston’s radar for minor league hitting coach; 5. No-trade clauses mean absolutely nothing.

Updates on nine 1. Adrian Beltre, 3B, free agent — Never underestimate the power of agent Scott Boras, but there’s a lot of silence surrounding Beltre. The Angels and Rangers appeared to be his leading suitors, but now one has to wonder if there isn’t a mystery team involved. Could the Orioles move new arrival Mark Reynolds from third to first? Could the A’s change their minds? Would Beltre consider the Pirates?

2. Gabe Kapler, OF, free agent — He wants to keep playing and is waiting for the right situation. He injured his hip with the Rays and missed the second part of last season. He says he’s not ready to return to his managerial career just yet.

3. Bill Hall, 2B, Astros — The one-year, $3 million deal provides Hall a chance to reestablish himself as a starter. You can bet Astros manager Brad Mills got lots of input on Hall from buddy Terry Francona, who thoroughly enjoyed Hall and the great job he did in a utility role. “Billy always wanted a chance to be a starter again and this affords him the opportunity,’’ said Hall’s agent, Terry Bross. Minute Maid Park will suit Hall’s power.

4. Jeff Bagwell, 1B, retired — He joins Rafael Palmeiro, Larry Walker, and Juan Gonzalez as first-timers on the Hall of Fame ballot. Some will run into steroid-related issues and some will run into statistical quandaries. Don’t expect any of them to make it right off the bat. None of them got my vote this time, but all will be under consideration going forward. Bert Blyleven, Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, and Tim Raines received my vote.

5. Chien-Ming Wang, RHP, Nationals — Looking for an early NL Comeback Player of the Year candidate? The Nationals re-signed Wang to a one-year, $1 million deal. He won 19 games twice for the Yankees and then suffered foot, hip, and shoulder injuries. He had capsule repair on his throwing shoulder by Dr. James Andrews and has come back to what is described as “95 percent’’ by one baseball official. Wang got real offers this offseason, for more than the Nationals gave him, but he felt loyalty to Washington for covering his medical expenses. At the instructional league his stuff was called “filthy’’ by those in the Nationals organization. So after three years of injuries and frustration, Wang’s heavy sinker that used to break AL bats could be back.

6. Joe Blanton, RHP, Phillies — After assembling their fearsome foursome rotation, the Phillies should find a market for Blanton. Countless teams need a back-end starter and Blanton gives that bulldog mentality that’s always good for a team. The problem: He’s owed $8.5 million for each of the next two seasons. The Phillies may have to subsidize some of it.

7. Carl Pavano, RHP, free agent — Nothing should happen with Pavano until later this week. The starting pitcher market is settling after Cliff Lee’s signing, and there are some teams that have interest in Pavano but are also trying to get in on a deal for Zack Greinke. But to end the process sooner for Pavano, a team needs to pony up a three-year deal in the $36 million range. That could be Washington, Minnesota, Texas, or Milwaukee.

8. Justin Masterson, RHP, Indians — He remains a perfect reliever for the Red Sox, but so far they have been denied in trying to deal for him. Masterson, who went to Cleveland in the Victor Martinez trade, could fill that two-inning middle relief role that he filled so well before being traded. The Indians still like him, though he hasn’t fared well as a starter (6-12, 4.78 ERA, 29 starts).

9. Zack Greinke, RHP, Royals — One baseball executive’s take on the Royals ace (left): “He’s a guy you want to go out and pursue with everything you can possibly offer, but then you realize will he be able to pitch in my market and will he be the pitcher he was two years ago consistently or was that a fluke?’’ Greinke is still the prize with two years and $27 million remaining on his deal.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck Files: “Carl Crawford hits .344 when he puts the first pitch of an at-bat in play. He hits .425 on a 3-and-1 count and .299 when has a full count. Overall, when he is ahead on the count, he hits .370, behind he hits .236.’’ Also, “In 341 2/3 innings in his six-year career, Bobby Jenks has surrendered 25 homers, which brings to mind the 25 homers that Wilbur Wood gave up in 359 1/3 innings in 1973.’’ And, “If it makes Matt Garza feel any better, he has a lifetime 1.315 WHIP and Bob Feller had a lifetime 1.316 WHIP.’’ . . . Reliever Scott Atchison and Hall have been named as the Red Sox’ Unsung Hero and Good Guy, respectively, by the Boston Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. They will be honored at the 72d annual Boston Baseball Writers dinner. The event will be Jan. 20 at The Westin Copley Place Hotel in Boston. Tickets are $150 and can be purchased with a check payable to The Sports Museum, 100 Legends Way, Boston, MA, 02114. Credit-card purchases can be made by calling Rusty Sullivan at 617-624-1237 . . . Wish Cecil Cooper a happy 61st birthday tomorrow.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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