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Baseball Notes

Is Papelbon now a save situation for the Red Sox?

By Nick Cafardo
August 7, 2011

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How can you say goodbye to Jonathan Papelbon?

You probably can’t.

The Red Sox were willing to offer 41-year-old Mariano Rivera a three-year deal last offseason. OK, there was some gamesmanship in that offer knowing that he’d go back to the Yankees. But the Sox did pursue a closer 11 years Papelbon’s senior. Rivera is no doubt the greatest ever. However, Papelbon is quite effective and experienced in big situations.

With his caché and history, Papelbon will get what he’s seeking on the free agent market. He’ll have some competition because Heath Bell, Francisco Rodriguez, Ryan Madson, Brad Lidge, and Joe Nathan will be out there as well. But Papelbon has rebuilt his reputation this season and reemerged as one of the game’s best.

While Daniel Bard is more than ready to be a major league closer, it will be awfully difficult for the Red Sox to break up a system that works so well.

“If our team had that I wouldn’t break it up,’’ said a National League executive. “In other words, if the resources were there to have both of those guys at the end of the game, and I believe they are, then there’s no way you break that up. It’s just too hard to find or replicate that.’’

Great point. Making Bard the closer makes sense, but who replaces Bard?

If you knew Bobby Jenks could be that guy, fine. But the former White Sox reliever has not shown he can be a consistent, effective reliever. He’s had too many health problems and it’s looking like the two-year, $12 million investment the Red Sox made in him will not pan out. The Sox certainly have gotten a lot out of Alfredo Aceves and Matt Albers, but neither are in Bard’s category.

Papelbon entered play yesterday 4-0 with a 3.35 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 45 2/3 innings. Only 19 of his 46 appearances have been clean, so that drives the Sox crazy. But Papelbon’s fastball is explosive again, his splitter is effective, and his shoulder has held up well.

Papelbon, who is making $12 million this season, will seek a big payday. Has he earned it? Yes. While most teams are reluctant to hand out big deals for closers, Papelbon should get a contract in the range of three years and $40 million. “Does that market exist for a closer anymore?’’ wondered an NL general manager. “I don’t know. Is the market that teams are willing to spend on a closer more in the $8 million to $10 million range now? It depends, I guess, on how desperate you are. It takes one team.

“Papelbon is going to draw interest if you’re a team in need of a closer and there seems to be enough of a market for a guy who will pitch at age 30, who is sound physically, and who has pitched in big games. With a closer, you always look at the wear and tear, is he someone who can be depended on in a big, tough moment. You say yes to those questions when it comes to Papelbon.

“The Red Sox have taken good care of his shoulder. They haven’t overextended him. He seems really refreshed this season because he hasn’t been overused and he probably hasn’t had as many save opportunities as he had in the past given that their team scores so many runs that they blow so many teams away.’’

With Papelbon, it really comes down to the adage: better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

He’s a homegrown player, who would love, in his words, to be the next Rivera. While relievers come and go and their performances go up and down more frequently than other positions, Papelbon has been amazingly consistent.

He has taken his conditioning to new levels and worked hard on his delivery, which was out of whack at times last season. In spring training, you would have bet the house that Bard would take over as closer sooner rather than later. But Papelbon, who wears a T-shirt that reads “Doubt Me’’, loves hearing the naysayers. He’s a pure adrenaline guy who pitches with a chip on his shoulder. That’s when he performs his best.

Then there’s the Bard dilemma.

If the Red Sox believe what they tell the media, that Bard pitches the most difficult innings in the game, then they’ll have to pay him accordingly when the time comes. There’s always talk about Bard’s desire to become a starting pitcher. If Bard is frustrated about not being the closer, would he push for a starting role?

There’s a long way to go before these decisions need to be made. Papelbon could implode. Or he could continue to excel.

“Nice problem,’’ said a former GM. “They obviously know Bard can do the job and it’s awfully tough not to give him his opportunity, but when you think about the best closers in the game, Papelbon is always in that conversation. I don’t know the ins and outs and how they view him and what their ties are to him. They may want him to leave. But if that’s the case, they’d better have a plan.’’

SINKING SHIP
Pirates’ good fortune currently lost at sea The Pirates were the Cinderella team in the National League for the longest time. But with 10 losses in 11 games entering yesterday, they are back on track for their 19th straight losing season, which would extend their North American sports record. Management tried to improve things at the trade deadline, obtaining Derrek Lee from Baltimore and Ryan Ludwick from San Diego to bolster a sagging offense, but it may have been too little, too late.

Entering play on July 26, the Pirates were in first place in the NL Central, one percentage point ahead of Milwaukee. After suffering their eighth straight loss Friday they were 54-57, eight games behind the Brewers.

Pirates fans want to shed the loser tag once and for all. It’s simply gone on too long.

Progress? Sure. Management did a good job identifying Clint Hurdle as the right manager for its young team. Hurdle has brought accountability and discipline to the clubhouse, which only recently has shown signs of frustration. “We’re at a point where we feel like we’re a pretty good team, then, 72 hours later, we feel like we’re not good at all. You’ve got to reach a point where your confidence isn’t shaken by a bad game or a bad week,’’ Hurdle told reporters last week.

Hurdle’s leadership has led to better results on the field. That has led to higher attendance, the team averaging more than 24,000 fans per game. That has them on pace to finish with just under 2 million fans at PNC Park, one of the most underrated venues in baseball. The Pirates have eclipsed 2 million in attendance just once at PNC Park, in its first season in 2001.

Ownership had said that if attendance improved, they would spend money to improve the team. By obtaining Lee and Ludwick, they showed they are no longer just sellers at the trade deadline. Hopefully those players work out better for GM Neal Huntington than past acquisitions Lyle Overbay (designated for assignment), Ramon Vazquez, Aki Iwamura, Ryan Church, and Bobby Crosby.

To put things in perspective, the Pirates finished 57-105 last year. What happens after this season will be very intriguing because Pittsburgh isn’t far off from being a major force in the NL Central.

“Where do they go from here?’’ asked an NL executive.“A lot of things fell into place for them. Their starting rotation has been consistent, but can you depend on those pitchers to keep doing the job? You expect them to get better, but if they stand still in the offseason you can’t expect the same level of performance from some of their players next season.’’

BLOCKED AT PLATE
Lavarnway has some obstacles to overcome One interesting question for the Red Sox in the offseason is what do they do with catching prospect Ryan Lavarnway?

Lavarnway doesn’t have much left to prove in the minors. He has combined for 27 homers and 80 RBIs between Portland and Pawtucket this season. He can hit, and hit for power. We now know that. What we don’t know is how well he can catch at the big league level.

Jason Varitek, 39, looks to have another season in him. He’s in such outstanding shape he wasn’t even fazed by catching a 16-inning game against Tampa Bay July 17. I asked him the next day how he felt. “Didn’t take me any longer to recover than normal,’’ he said. That floored me.

Saltalamacchia is starting to show power from both sides of the plate. Opposing managers have been impressed with his arm strength. His throws aren’t always on target, but there are no complaints concerning his game-calling.

So how does Lavarnway fit in?

He will likely get a September call-up so he can start facing major league pitching. Scouts don’t seem to think Lavarnway will have a problem hitting at the next level.

“When he first gets to the big leagues, pitchers will challenge him and he’s got a nice swing and I’m sure he’ll connect. Then they’ll adjust to him and start being more careful and that’s when you can really start to gauge,’’ said a former AL general manager who is now an adviser for an NL team. “He’s going to be a power force and with that lineup, it’s really tough to see where he fits.’’

Lavarnway was an outfielder at Yale, but at 6 feet 4 inches, 225 pounds, he doesn’t move around well. He could probably play first base, but the Sox have that position tied up. Lavarnway could learn to play third base, but the Sox have Will Middlebrooks on the way.

One scout said a good parallel was the Yankees’ Jesus Montero - good hit, no field.

The Sox believe that Lavarnway is never going to look good to a scout because his actions aren’t fluid. He’s always going to look a bit clumsy behind the plate, but he will get the job done.

If another team feels the same way, the Sox could have a trade partner.

ETC.
Apropos of nothing 1. By the time Clay Buchholz is ready to pitch, the minor league season will be over. Don’t think we’ll see him again this year; 2. Who’s the AL MVP, Adrian Gonzalez or Jacoby Ellsbury?; 3. The Red Sox put just about everyone through trade waivers this week; 4. Who would you rather have, Justin Verlander or Jered Weaver?; 5. Nice job by Zach Kapstein, 19, the tireless catcher, first baseman, and outfielder from Tiverton, R.I., who in limited time was hitting .344 with a .417 OBP and two outfield assists for the Gulf Coast Red Sox.

Updates on nine 1. Derek Lowe, RHP, Braves - Lowe has been slumping (1-4, 7.52 ERA, and a .365 average against over his last five starts), but the Braves are trying to be patient, figuring that Lowe usually turns things around quickly. The Braves’ top pitching prospects are with Triple A Gwinnett: Randall Delgado, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, and Arodys Vizcaino. One or all may be summoned to help out between now and September.

2. Jose Bautista, OF, Blue Jays - Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos seems to be open to anything. If I’m the Red Sox, I unload the farm system for Bautista, a terrific right fielder who would be amazing at Fenway. “I would be surprised if they traded him, but who knows,’’ said one rival GM. “They have a young team and they need that one superstar that brings people to the ballpark. He’s that force. I think the fans there would be up in arms if they dealt him.’’

3. J.P. Ricciardi, special adviser, Mets - Ricciardi signed and developed many prominent players during his eight seasons in Toronto. He has one year left on his contract with the Mets, and is expected to be in the running for potential GM openings with the Cubs, Mariners, Orioles, Astros, and possibly the Dodgers.

4. Kyle Farnsworth, RHP, Rays - An interesting name who could be part of a waiver deal. Farnsworth has had a very good season and might appeal to a contender. Tampa Bay would listen to offers. Another Ray whose name was floated on trade waivers, Johnny Damon, has a history of helping teams win championships and adds credibility to any lineup.

5. Wandy Rodriguez, LHP, Astros - The Astros would deal Rodriguez if he’s claimed, but they also feel they could get good value for him in the offseason as well. The Astros were shocked that Brett Myers received little interest at the deadline.

6. Mike Napoli, C/1B, Rangers - Napoli feels far more relaxed being out from under the thumb of Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who is tough on his catchers. Napoli was hitting .296 with 18 homers, 44 RBIs, and a 1.011 OPS entering yesterday. He has the lowest ERA (2.37) among active catchers with at least 250 innings. “I always felt like I was looking over my shoulder to see if I was doing things right,’’ Napoli said of his time with the Angels. “I had ‘bad hands.’ I was so worried about my setup and the mechanics all the time. I learned a lot. I learned a lot of what I do there, but playing there just wasn’t much fun.’’

7. Joel Pineiro, RHP, Angels - The former Sox swingman was dropped from the rotation as his sinker turned into a stinker before the Angels’ eyes. They now regret not adding a starter at the deadline. Erik Bedard would have been a nice fit for them. Pineiro pitched past the fifth inning just once in his last four starts. Who takes his place? Hisanori Takahashi could come out of the bullpen. Garrett Richards could vault from Double A (where he is 12-2 with a 3.06 ERA). Options at Triple A include Trevor Bell and journeyman Matt Palmer.

8. Rich Harden, RHP, A’s - It’s possible that Harden becomes a waiver deal. Harden could get claimed before he got to the Red Sox, but if not, he’s definitely someone the Sox would consider if they find that Bedard can’t make it all the way back from his knee injury.

9. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals - Today’s a big day for the phenom, who will make his first rehab start for Single A Hagerstown (Md.) for Brian Daubach’s team. Strasburg will throw only one or two innings, 11 months after having Tommy John surgery.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck Files: “In 1985, Wade Boggs paired with Bill Buckner. In 1986, Boggs paired with Jim Rice. Those were the only times the Red Sox had more than one player in a season who had 200-plus hits. This year, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, and Jacoby Ellsbury all have chances to reach 200.’’ And, “The Orioles have lost over 90 games each of the last five seasons and eight of the last 10 years and have to go 30-25 the rest of the way to avoid 90 losses this year.’’ . . . Happy birthday to Edgar Renteria (35), Kerry Lacy (39), Greg Pirkl (41), and John Trautwein (49).

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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