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Philadelphia flier

Papelbon gets $50m to exit for the Phillies

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / November 12, 2011

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The Red Sox offered Jonathan Papelbon the security of a long-term contract several times in recent years. Several teammates embraced similar offers, but Papelbon preferred to gamble.

He went season to season, methodically making his way to free agency, knowing that poor performance or injury could cost him millions of dollars.

It paid off in the end for Papelbon, who yesterday agreed to terms with the Philadelphia Phillies on the richest contract for a relief pitcher in baseball history.

According to major league sources, Papelbon has a four-year deal worth $50 million with a vesting option for 2016 that would take the contract to more than $60 million. The contract is contingent on a physical that is scheduled for next week.

Even without the option, it’s a record package for a reliever. The average annual value of $12.5 million would be second only to Mariano Rivera, whom the Yankees have paid $15 million a year since 2008.

The Red Sox, general manager Ben Cherington said, never made an offer. His conversations with agents Sam and Seth Levinson were such that it was obvious no deal could be made.

“It’s been clear, where we see it and what we’d be willing to do at this point in the offseason given what our other needs are and what we feel the alternatives are, is not something that matched up with what Pap was looking for,’’ Cherington said. “Because of that, we never made a formal offer.’’

It was the latest departure for the rapidly changing Red Sox, who have seen manager Terry Francona and general manager Theo Epstein leave the organization in the last six weeks. David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, and Tim Wakefield also are free agents.

The Red Sox didn’t even get a telephone call saying Papelbon had left the team. Not that Cherington expected one.

“We certainly wanted to leave the door open if we got deeper into the offseason and circumstances changed for either side. Perhaps there was something that could have been worked out,’’ Cherington said. “But at this point in the offseason, this early, there wasn’t enough common ground. So we didn’t make an offer, and because of that it wouldn’t be fair to expect them to come back to us.’’

Cherington’s reticence to pay Papelbon was grounded in knowing that other closers would be available at cheaper rates.

The Red Sox have been grooming Daniel Bard for several years. He has only five career saves, but has pitched well as Papelbon’s setup man.

“I think Daniel would embrace more responsibility,’’ Cherington said. “Daniel’s one of the most prepared and conscientious guys that we have in that clubhouse. He’s proven he’s an elite major league pitcher. I think that he would embrace more responsibility and he’s ready for more responsibility. We’re not ready to commit to any role for Daniel or anyone else in the bullpen, but he’s certainly ready for more responsibility if given to him.’’

Free agents include Heath Bell, Ryan Madson, Joe Nathan, and Francisco Rodriguez.

The Phillies were reportedly close to a four-year, $44 million deal for Madson before turning their attention to Papelbon.

“We feel like there are alternatives both internal and perhaps external as well,’’ said Cherington. “It’s a bountiful closer market relative to some years. We just felt like right now the focus was going to be on other areas of the team.’’

Still, replacing Papelbon will not be easy. The righthander, who turns 31 later this month, was the greatest closer in franchise history, saving 219 games over seven seasons and seven more in the postseason.

Papelbon was a Fenway Park favorite, swaggering out of the bullpen to the raucous sounds of “I’m Shipping Up To Boston’’ by the Dropkick Murphys. He would glower at opposing batters and punctuate saves with wild fist pumps.

Papelbon dominated in the 2007 postseason, throwing 10 2/3 scoreless innings over seven appearances and helping the Red Sox to the World Series championship. He celebrated the American League title that season by performing an Irish jig on the field.

He was a free spirit in the clubhouse, dubbing himself “Cinco Ocho’’ (his uniform number) and adopting what at times seemed like a second personality.

“Cinco’s a whole different person,’’ Papelbon said in spring training before last season. “Not everybody sees him.’’

A four-time All-Star, Papelbon was the first pitcher in history with 35 or more saves in each of his first five full seasons. He has a career ERA of 2.33 and averaged 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings.

Papelbon has given up only three earned runs in 27 postseason innings. All three of those runs came in Game 3 of the 2009 Division Series against the Angels at Fenway. The Red Sox have not been back in the postseason since.

A substandard 2010 season saw Papelbon’s ERA swell to 3.90. He arrived at spring training for 2011 looking like a linebacker after an offseason spent in the gym. He was 31 of 34 with save opportunities and had a 2.33 ERA along with a 22-inning scoreless streak.

But two of his blown saves came in the final nine days of the season and contributed to the team’s historic collapse.

Papelbon was at his worst in Game 162 at Baltimore. Called on to protect a one-run lead, he got two quick outs before allowing two doubles and a single to lose the game and eliminate the Red Sox from the playoffs.

“Pap has worked extremely hard to put himself in position to go into free agency coming off a really successful season. We knew he was going to be in demand and teams in a position to win would have interest in him,’’ Cherington said.

Because Papelbon is a Type A free agent, the Red Sox will get two first-round draft picks as compensation, barring changes in the next collective bargaining agreement.

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.

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