THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Papelbon lugging baggage

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By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / February 14, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — He’s gone. This is it. One more season and Jonathan Papelbon and the Red Sox get divorced. In 2011, Papelbon is the dead man walking (and striking out) batters on the Fenway Park mound. You can search long and far before you find a single soul who believes Papelbon will be part of the Red Sox next season.

It’s been the organization’s blueprint from Day 1. It’s been Papelbon’s plan, also. Give the Sox six full seasons of stellar relief, fire every bullet, then sign a megabucks deal with another team.

Papelbon knows it. General manager Theo Epstein knows it. We are on the threshold of Papelbon’s final campaign at Fenway, which makes this Sox season of great expectations a tad awkward for both parties.

The big lug was diplomatic in a wide-ranging interview after working out at the minor league complex yesterday.

When first asked if being here next year is “realistic,’’ he answered, “I think anything is realistic. It’s a tough question. I’m not really concerned about that right now. I know that all of the pieces of the puzzle will fall into place after this year is done and I’m really not thinking about it. Yeah, there’s a possibility I could stay. Yeah, there’s a possibility I could leave. At the same time, I’m thinking of the possibility of winning a championship.’’

Nice try, big fella. But what is this like? He’s been part of the Red Sox since he was drafted in 2003. He’s been the greatest closer in franchise history. He was on the mound when the Sox won the Series in 2007. He has to be aware that we all think this is the end.

“Why does everybody assume that?’’ he asked me.

Because it’s been part of the plan all along, I told him.

“Did you come up with that idea?’’ he asked. (Don’t you love it when the guy being interviewed starts asking the questions?)

I didn’t have to invent the idea, I told him. It’s obvious.

Still, I wanted to know what it’s like to go to work knowing that everyone assumes he is done in Boston after this season.

“Like you said, that’s an assumption,’’ he said. “So I kind of just leave it at that. I don’t really sit there and think that every time I go out there and play that ‘this could be my last time in a Red Sox uniform.’ Honestly, I’m not gonna think about that.

“I saw the acquisitions that Theo made and I saw how Theo was able to fill the holes on our team and personally I think he did a hell of a job. And we’re in a position where it’s going to be ‘put up or shut up.’ If I’m worried about free agency, if David [Ortiz] is worried about getting another deal, or somebody else is worried about this, that, and the other, we won’t be the team we’re supposed to be. I’m not really thinking about it and I’m being 100 percent honest.’’

What about the fact that the Sox already have your replacement (Daniel Bard or Bobby Jenks, take your pick)?

“That’s part of the equation,’’ he said. “That’s part of why everybody’s assuming that I’m not going to be here and I understand that . . . it lines up like that. That’s to be seen in the future. After the season’s over, all that will unfold and we’ll see what happens.’’

There are simply no secrets in this case. It’s all very transparent. Everyone knows that the Sox tried to sign Mariano Rivera during the offseason. Everyone knows the Sox explored trading Papelbon. Everyone knows the Sox are worried about the long-term reliability of Papelbon’s right shoulder. Everyone knows Bard is the closer-in-waiting. Everyone knows Papelbon wants to make a big score in free agency. And everyone knows he’s coming off the worst season (5-7, 3.90 ERA, eight blown saves) of his career.

That’s a lot of incentive for a 30-year-old closer in his walk year.

“There may be various reasons why he wants to bounce back,’’ said manager Terry Francona. “I’m not sure I care, whether it’s financial . . . I just want him to get a bunch of saves. He looks like he’s in great shape. I don’t think this has been as much of an issue for Pap as maybe it was for people talking about Pap. Right away when we signed Jenks, I was in touch with Pap and he knew where I stood on this. I don’t think it was much of an issue.’’

The manager was remarkably candid when asked if he thinks free agency will motivate Papelbon.

“Yes. I think it will motivate him,’’ Francona said. “I don’t think he’s ever been real hesitant to say that. He aspires to be one of the high-bar [closers]. That’s OK.’’

He will be a high-bar closer in another uniform next year. And Sox fans are going to miss him. Papelbon gets way too much grief around here. The closer is often better than the closer you don’t know. Trust me when I tell you that we’re all going to miss the big galoot when he’s gone.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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