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Which path will Papelbon take in 2011?

Posted by Peter Abraham, Globe Staff  December 17, 2010 11:01 AM

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Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Jonathan Papelbon had a 3.90 ERA and 37 saves in 2010.
It sounded like a joke when the news came out a few weeks ago that the Red Sox had offered Mariano Rivera a contract. Hey, look at Theo Epstein poking the tiger with a stick.

Guess what? The Sox were serious. They wanted Rivera and hoped to get him. Their offer was so serious that the Yankees had to raise their initial proposal to match it.

"It was real. It was real, Rivera said in New York yesterday. I thanked them, because they took me into consideration. This is business and the Yankees did the right thing, and Im here.

Had the lottery ticket paid off and Rivera somehow accepted, the Sox were prepared to part ways with Jonathan Papelbon, either with a trade or by non-tendering him.

Fast forward to yesterday when the Red Sox signed Bobby Jenks to a two-year deal worth $12 million. That's big money for a guy who might pitch a lot in the seventh inning. But it's reasonable money for a guy who could be the closer in July.

Happy holidays, Pap. The Red Sox are sending shots across your bow faster than any of your fastballs.

Team sources said yesterday and again this morning that the Red Sox plan to start the season with Papelbon, Jenks and Daniel Bard in the bullpen. The Phillies have four aces, the Sox will have three closers.

It makes sense. The best way to shorten a game is to have three guys capable of throwing 95-100 for the final three innings. All three handle lefties well and should help to keep each other stay fresh.

When Bard needed a day off last season, it was time for Terry Francona to shut his eyes and mutter a prayer. Now he has Jenks.

The move also brings with it flexibility. Papelbon had the worst season of his career in 2010, blowing eight saves and giving up a bunch of big hits. The Yankees were 12 of 43 against him with four homers. The Orioles crushed him, too.

Papelbon will be a free agent after the coming season. For a few years now, he has expressed a desire to get a contract that sets the market for closers, to stand on the same plateau as the great Rivera. The Red Sox want little to do with that, making 2011 quite likely Papelbon's last year in Boston.

Perhaps that will motivate him to a great season. But if it doesn't, if last year was the start of a decline, the Sox don't have to sit around and watch it. They can deal Papelbon away and turn to Bard and Jenks.

Papelbon likes to pretend he has no idea what is going on and surely he will express only confidence once he reports to spring training. He'll click over to obtuse once the questions come.

But the idea that the Sox wanted Rivera and have now signed Jenks has to register with him. If Papelbon comes out swinging, the rest of the American League will suffer. If not, the Papelbon Watch will get started early.

Epstein was poking somebody with a stick. But it wasn't the Yankees.

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