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Tony Massarotti

Closing argument made for Padilla

By Tony Massarotti
Globe Staff / April 5, 2012
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In baseball, especially, you generally get what you pay for, which in the case of the Red Sox is a closer with a history of injuries. Andrew Bailey is gone for months, not weeks, and even then there is no assurance that he will be able to stay on the field whenever he comes back.

In his absence, the Sox need to find a closer while keeping the rest of their bullpen generally intact, a task that might be easier than many would like to believe.

So, here’s a candidate for you:

Vicente Padilla.

Now 34, Padilla went 1-0 with one save and a 3.29 ERA in seven appearances covering 13 2/3 innings for the Red Sox this spring. He struck out 11 and walked one. Spring numbers mean relatively nothing, of course, and they are offered here solely as some indication that Padilla threw the ball well during camp. In a March 13 appearance against the Yankees in Tampa, Padilla struck out four and did not walk a batter in three hitless innings, at times looking dominant.

Give him the ball in the ninth, Bobby V. See how it goes. If Padilla blows a couple early, you always can switch to a more traditional plan. But trying Padilla in the closer’s role makes sense on so many levels that it’s worth a roll of the dice.

By now, we all know that closers are frequently made, not born. Many of them are converted starters. Dennis Eckersley, John Wetteland, Joe Nathan, and John Smoltz are just a handful of names on the list of those who made the transition near or after the age of 30. More than anything else, closing takes a combination of stuff and mind-set, a pairing Padilla seems to possess based on how he threw the ball this spring.

Here’s another thing a closer needs: control. Late in games, particularly, walks are a killer. For the most part, Padilla has had decent control during his career, at times throwing the ball with good precision.

Now the obvious question: Why Padilla over Mark Melancon or Alfredo Aceves, the former of whom had 20 saves for the Houston Astros last season and the latter of whom was named Wednesday as the closer and has been borderline brilliant since the Red Sox acquired him? Because the Red Sox bullpen sets up better if Bobby Valentine can leave each in his current role. Melancon had a poor spring, which would be meaningless if it were not for the fact that many doubted his ability to close to begin with. (Some of us doubted whether Melancon was truly cut out for the eighth inning, believing he is better suited for the sixth or seventh.) And Aceves has such great versatility that he is invaluable anywhere from the sixth through the eighth, possessing the ability to pitch as many as all three on any given night.

By most accounts, Valentine could go with any combination of Melancon, Aceves, and Padilla in the final three innings. On some level, all three would make sense. No succession of those pitchers is necessarily wrong. But putting Melancon first and Padilla last allows Valentine to maximize the abilities of all three, assuming Padilla is up to the task.

Here’s the one major concern with Padilla: lefthanded batters. Historically, Padilla has had trouble with lefties, largely because he is a fastball-breaking ball pitcher with nothing that runs toward the third base side of home plate. Of course, the same could be said of Daniel Bard, whose development and implementation of his changeup may be the key to any success he has as a starter.

In short relief, Bard often got away with two pitches. Maybe Padilla can do the same, particularly given an intense disposition that borders on craziness - Aceves is similar in some ways - which could make him the perfect candidate for the job.

On a grander scale, let’s understand how the Red Sox got themselves into this mess, something they have not really experienced since Jonathan Papelbon took over for the deteriorating Keith Foulke in the earliest stages of the 2006 season. Papelbon finished that year on the disabled list, but it was the only time during his six full seasons in Boston that he went on the DL. (Bailey couldn’t even get out of his first spring healthy.) Add Papelbon’s departure to a list of factors that included a self-imposed payroll restraint thanks to dead money - thank you, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Bobby Jenks, and Theo Epstein - and the Red Sox were put in the unenviable position of needing both innings (in their rotation) and a new closer.

So, how did the Sox solve it? They took the most cost-efficient way out. They moved Bard into the rotation and acquired Melancon and Bailey (combined salaries: about $4.5 million) by trade, all before shedding the contract of Marco Scutaro to make the numbers work.

Now, the biggest acquisition of general manager Ben Cherington’s inaugural offseason already has gone poof, thrusting the Sox into a relative fire drill before having played a game.

Fine. Stuff happens. But if the Sox had just invested, say, in someone like Hiroki Kuroda on a one-year deal - something they have indicated they were always willing to do - they still could have Bard (with Melancon, Aceves, and others) in the bullpen and their rotation intact. Instead, the Sox are now so committed to Bard in a starter’s role that they are intent on keeping him there (the right move - at least for now), which leaves the bullpen in a rather unsettled state.

Again, it is important to remember what Cherington’s approach was over the winter. Rather than signing one starter for $10 million or so, the Sox went out and secured, among others, Padilla, Aaron Cook, and Carlos Silva on low-risk contracts, hoping one of them would pan out if and when there was a need in the rotation. By all accounts, a rehabilitating Cook is not quite ready. Silva barely made it into spring before he broke down. Bailey now looks like yet another acquisition in a lot of damaged goods, all because the Red Sox opted to buy in bulk.

And we haven’t even mentioned Chris Carpenter, the broken pitcher whom the Sox received as compensation for Epstein.

Just wondering: Did the Sox invest in any, um, healthy pitchers?

OK, so that’s a jab. But you get the idea. Suddenly, Padilla looks like one of the few healthy pitchers (for now) that Cherington picked up during the offseason, the only real man on the Opening Day roster for whom the Sox did not have a preassigned role. Bard, Felix Doubront, Melancon, and Aceves were all expected to fill specific roles, as was Bailey, who is now out of the mix until roughly the All-Star break.

Rather than shuffling bodies throughout their pitching staff then, the Sox should have just placed Padilla in the closer’s role for now and see how it goes. If it failed, they will merely be back in the same situation.

But if it works, they will have seamlessly replaced the injury-prone Bailey without tinkering with their entire staff or bullpen.

Tony Massarotti can be reached at tmassarotti@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti.

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