The Red Sox offseason circus claimed its first on-field casualty Friday as Jonathan Papelbon took the money and shipped off to Philly for about $50 million over four years, with possibly more to come. It's the biggest deal ever for a closer - Papelbon's goal all along.
Papelbon was one of the three or four players who managed to avoid getting burned by the chemical reaction of Popeye's and Bud Light. If anything, his reputation actually improved amid the nuclear ashes of October. In 2011, he converted 31 of 34 save opportunities with a 2.94 ERA. He was clutch up to the final week of the season. But like the Sox, he saved his worst for last, blowing a one-run lead with no one on and two out in Game 162.
Good riddance - he imploded on the mound in Game 3 against the Angels ending the Red Sox last playoff appearance, fanned in a key series against the Yankees in 2010 when there was still hope and was caught looking over his right shoulder at Carl Crawford "Manny-Ramirezing" the last at-bat of the season for the Orioles. Two doubles and a single with two outs. No big loss.
Papelbon was on the mound when the Red Sox closed out the 2007 World Series. And the only three runs he ever gave up in 27 postseason innings came in that late-morning loss to the Angels. That series was hopeless to begin with. Whatever issues he had this time last year - remember when the great debate was whether or not he or Bard will close in 2011 - he was able to right the ship and save games that could be saved. It wasn't his fault that the starting pitchers could not reach the 6th inning as the Sox fell apart. He was brutal on people with high-blood-pressure and anxiety disorders, for sure, but he closed the deal way too many times for him not to be missed.
The free-wheeling days of the Red Sox throwing unlimited money at their concerns have gone the way of the 9 1/2-game lead and the NESN baby. Ben Cherington is going to become the Lord of Austerity as the Sox embark on the Road to Mediocrity. Damage control time. Cherington said Friday Papelbon's agents never gave the Sox a chance to match Philly's offer - not that it would have made a difference. The Sox may not overtly gut the payroll like, say, the post-World Series Marlins, but the waistline will be getting smaller and smaller as the offseason progresses. If there's any chance to get rid of Josh Beckett and even part of his bloated deal - the Sox will and probably should grab at it. Get used to the big names leaving town. That may be a good thing. Or maybe not. Jacoby Ellsbury will have to wait for the Yankees to pony up that $250 million in a couple of years unless the Sox can deal him. David Ortiz can put his phone back on vibrate. It won't be ringing any time soon unless he's willing to take a whopping pay cut. Jason Varitek? Tim Wakefield? Can you say "Senior League minimum?"
As we learned again just the other day - this team is far from going broke. Bricks are still available, and there's a special going on through November. The Sox would lease the intergalactic rights over Fenway to the Russians if it would enhance revenues. I'll probably get a bill for mentioning the name "Fenway Park" without official authorization.
The overhaul of the Red Sox - from front office on down to the strength and conditioning coach - has just gotten started. John Lackey has been surgically removed until 2013. Papelbon found Brotherly Love - not to mention a ridiculously large contract - in Philly. The Phillies remain in Yankee-Wanna-Be mode and even tried a more ridiculous deal with Ryan Madson before ownership temporarily found some sanity.
But for that same money, Papelbon was just too good a big-name for the Phillies not to grab. Philly followed the Red Sox into 2011 extinction barely a week after the Sox were deep-fried - and it was supposed to win the World Series. (At least that's what I read in Sports Illustrated.) As Carmine works to digest the dollars-per-runs-produced-on-weekday-evening-games cost of Crawford's deal - spending Yankees or Phillies money on a closer will just not compute. Henry got nothing for his/our $161 million this year and Larry is there to make sure that cost-containment is just as important as Ben's previously tweeted goal of "contending for the playoffs." It wasn't the amount of the money the Sox blew last year, rather the fact that they got nothing for it. The difference between Papelbon and someone like Madson or Heath Bell, in the end, won't be more than $10 or $15 million in any long-term deal.
Madson might be a nice consolation prize, but Bard isn't ready to close. His numbers are solid, but he still has too much of that Calvin Schiraldi-deer look in the eyes whenever he faces a crucial situation in a critical game. There's always Bobby Jenks once he drops 400 pounds. Papelbon, who turns 31 this month, was never short on confidence. He had a monster ego that took all the energy and frenzy of Boston baseball and digested it to create a self-perpetuating brash personality. Imagine, he was throwing too hard on the final night of the season. I'll take that any day over someone like Sonofstanley, er Bard, walking the ballpark in the eighth inning. Now, the Phillies have Papelbon, his 219 career saves, 2.33 career ERA and his ability to own big-city markets for $50 million (if not more depending on reports of an option year). That will get him about 5.5 million Wiz Cheesesteaks at Geno's. Will we ever get to see him hit? That would be something.
Bottom line - the Red Sox should have signed him, even for 10 million Fenway Franks.
Adios, Cinco Ocho. At least we've still got Ochocinco.
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